GIZA, Egypt: The pharaohs of Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty knew what they were doing. As soon as they ascended the throne, they began building a pyramid that would not only see them through to the afterlife, but also give work and purpose to an unsettled nation. In a way, they were still provided for modern Egypt 4,500 years later, with their pyramids attracting the tourists who accounted for 10 percent of its national income and 1 in 8 jobs.
By contrast, Egypt’s rulers of the last two-and-a-half years have failed utterly to provide for a nation that is once again unsettled.
Before 2011 the pyramids of Giza, which stand on a desert plateau overlooking modern Cairo, and the Great Sphinx that guards them below drew thousands of visitors a day, most bringing foreign currency with them.
But on one day last week two armored vehicles stood at the gates and a bus park easily big enough for 100 tourist coaches lay empty. In the burial chamber deep inside the 136-meter Pyramid of Khafre, a Reuters reporter had only the pharaoh’s granite sarcophagus for company.
The army’s overthrow two months ago of Islamist Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, is just the latest in a series of upheavals since the autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell in a popular uprising in January 2011.
Tourists have increasingly stayed away since then, put off by hundreds of thousands or even millions taking to the streets every few months, to say nothing of the killing of hundreds since July when security forces cleared Islamist protest camps.
In Cairo, only 17 percent of hotel beds were occupied in July, according to the hotel research firm STR Global, compared with 53 percent a year earlier and 70 percent in July 2010.
Even in Sharm al-Sheikh, a Red Sea resort largely shielded from the political upheavals in Cairo and other big cities, occupancy tumbled to 49 percent from 79 percent two years ago.
In Giza, the usual trinket sellers and self-appointed “guides” are rare. They seem to lack the persistence, sometimes bordering on aggression, which they once used in persuading tourists to buy their goods and services.
Abdul-Rahman Adem, 61, proffering a plaster Sphinx with each hand, says these days he makes between $1.50 and $2 a day. Before 2011, it was more than double that.
“This is the worst season ever,” says tour guide Joseph Selim. Once he had bookings for 25 days a month, often made a year in advance. Before July’s violent crackdown, it was still 15 or 20. Now he gets five or six.
For many people in the tourist industry, even though the army ran Egypt for 17 months after Mubarak, the mess is the fault of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
They say the crackdown on Brotherhood members, who were persecuted under Mubarak but won a series of elections after his fall, is a necessary evil to get rid of a group that had become a threat. If mentioned at all, the killing of Morsi’s supporters is something that foreign media overplayed.
“At the start I thought: ‘These are people who have suffered, they might try really hard and be good for the economy.’ But they didn’t care about anything except securing power for themselves,” says Selim.
The Brotherhood says the army set it up to fail, and that charges of fomenting violence are a pretext for a drive to wipe it out. To critics, Morsi chose ideological confrontation and turmoil over Egypt’s priority – stability and security.
The pharaohs understood the need for security well, siting their tombs above the Nile, safe for millennia from the annual floods in the valley below – if not from those who looted the treasures stored with them for the afterlife.
Today, few can understand why Morsi chose a member of a formerly militant Islamist group as governor of Luxor, home to many of Egypt’s loveliest pharaonic relics about 500 km south of Cairo.
The group, Gamaa Islamiya, is blamed for killing 58 tourists at a temple complex there in 1997, although it has now renounced its violent campaign for an Islamic state.
Last Friday, the pyramids were closed altogether as Brotherhood supporters staged protests across Egypt.
Shop assistants and hawkers say they were all ready at first to support and respect Morsi because, as Selim says, “Egypt’s president is still like a pharaoh: You can’t say anything bad about him.”
But Morsi soon worried people across a country of diverse communities and differing degrees of religious observance. “He talked in a really different way, he said ‘I’m going to sacrifice my life for Egypt.’ He talked a lot about blood,’” said Selim. “That made us nervous.”
While Selim belongs to Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, colleagues from the Muslim majority said they shared his views.
If Egyptians could not look up to Morsi, then to whom? Perhaps a modern-day equivalent of Ramses II, greatest pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire, entrusted with appeasing the gods of nature and chaos on his subjects’ behalf.
At Memphis, the first capital of united Egypt just south of modern Cairo, his 80-ton limestone statue – 10 meters long even though broken off at the knees – lies as serene and imposing as when it was sculpted 3,200 years ago.
The contrast to the shabby open-air compound where he lies is striking. The approach road is rutted and congested, the surrounding groves of date palms half-buried in illegally dumped waste and rubble. By midmorning, the owners of the tatty souvenir stalls have not even bothered to open.
Many Egyptians see the army as the only institution that can get things done. As a provider of rulers since 1952, the military is the closest thing modern Egypt has to a dynasty. The owner of a business empire, it distributes a large number of civilian contracts and jobs.
Among those who rely on security to bring in the tourists, admiration of army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi – who toppled Morsi and now seems to be trying to crush the Brotherhood – is not short of worship.
“People love him because he’s a savior,” says 35-year-old Ibrahim Ali, in the shop where he demonstrates ancient Egyptian papyrus making to tourists in Giza and sells souvenir scrolls, “discounted” but still overpriced.
“He’s a very good man, he talks to us like an Egyptian ... We would trust the army even if they were liars. The relationship between the army and the people is almost holy.”
“By the will of God, the army will save the people,” chorus two assistants in a shop near the pyramids selling shirts and towels of Egyptian cotton. There, they say, business is down 95 percent in three years.
While Morsi lasted only a year in office, Mubarak – mockingly called a modern-day pharaoh – rigged elections to hold on to power for 30.
At Saqqara, south of Cairo, stands the stepped pyramid of King Djoser, the oldest of them all. After 30 years on the throne, pharaohs were supposed to prove their fitness to rule by running around an adjacent courtyard, and then undergo this “Heb Sed” test every three years.
Failure could mean loss of the throne, or even death.
However, like in modern times, the rules may have been bent along the way. Historians suggest later pharaohs simply designated a younger runner to represent them. Instead of being an examination of kingship, the ritual became a celebration of his reign.