Egypt - a land ruled by meglomaniacs
It feels a long time ago since I was last in Egypt and I haven’t thought about the place a lot since; not until today when the news bulletins were filled with news from Cairo.
It’s hard to capture Egypt in one blog entry because it’s so expansive. Egypt a great empire thousands of years ago when people in Britain were still living in huts made of cow manure and trying to figure out how a wheel worked.
The pharaohs were the world’s first megalomaniacs. Consider the amount of power Khufu must have wielded 2,580 years before the birth of Christ when he was able to get his devoted subjects to spend 23 years toiling in the heat of the desert moving 2,300,000 building blocks that weighted 2.5 tons each, just to build their ruler a giant headstone, in the form of the Great Pyramid. By all accounts Khufu was a tyrant who spurned a funerary cult.
Today the leader cult is apparent in the middle class Cairo suburb of Heliopolis where a giant statute of Ramses the Great watches over the highway.
Egypt isn’t short of monuments honouring its leaders and according them God like status. Indeed the texts known as the Memphite Theology helped fused Egypt's kings with its gods. In the inhospitable western desert across the Nile from Luxor, two massive and brooding figures sit in crumbling splendour. These are the Colossi of Memnon, statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, which were the inspiration for Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".
Egypt is full of tales of despots who saw their legacies crumble away. The pharaoh Akhenaten forced his people to abandon the old gods and to worship the disc of the sun, the Aten. He built a startling new city from the lone and level sands that fell into decay just years after his death.
And what of Hosni Mubarak, the present president whose 30 year reign is in jeopardy? While the US harped on about regime change and bringing democracy to Iraq, it said little about the crushing of human rights in countries that were its allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya.
Mubarak may not be as bad as Saddam Hussein but the Iraqi tyrant's personality cult is also in evidence in Egypt where Mubrak's face stares down on the traffic from numerous posters like a modern day Ramses.
It would be ironic indeed if the US mission to bring democracy to the Middle East toppled the regimes of its allies rather than the likes of Iran and Syria.
For me Egypt remains a country that is as fascinating as it is beautiful and at times sinister. The first time I arrived in Luxor, I felt almost suffocated by the dry heat and the exotic nature of my surroundings. We drove past homes without roofs and strange smokey dives where men gathered into the night by the Nile to smoke hookah pipes.
Waking up on the first morning on a Nile cruise ship, the sparking aqua green beauty of the Nile and the lushness of the palms that caressed the river against the harsh desert walls beyond it, were too breathtaking for description. This was the cradle of civilzation in all its savage beauty.
And as we drove through fields of swaying grasses and donkey carts to a distant funerary temple it became clear the way of life here hadn't changed much since the days of the Bible.
And on the dusty road into Cairo a sense of disbelief comes over you that such a huge city can grow and thrive out of such a barren brown wilderness. Slums are piled on top of ironstone cliffs with not a tree to break the bleakness and families live in open tombs in the Cities of the Dead. In the vast Khan El Khalil bazaar, where half blind men push around carts with sheeps heads and the hawkers follow you through the labyrinth it's easy to lose hope.
But in Egypt there are friendly people everywhere. There are people who will escort you across the road, talking about their Oxford education. Before you know it you'll be in their perfume shop, a hopeless victim to the hard sell. Or the other way to escape will be via his cousin's carpet shop or his brother's papyrus shop.
Then at the most blatant tourist spots the sellers will mentally check you out to gauge your nationality before becoming a satire of your nation. "Luvvly jubberly, tally ho and Marks and Spencer," they will cry, as you try in vain to pass yourself off as a Canadian.
The troubles in Egypt make me wonder if the nation will finally shake itself free of the yoke of the tyrants and I'm skeptical about revolution for revolution's sake. For every Czeck-style velvet revolution, there's a revolution like 1879 in France that spawned the terror, the Guillotine and Robspierre, or 1917 in Russia that spawned Bolshevism and the biggest tyrant of them all Joseph Stalin.
And let's not forget the regime in Iran that has been the symbol of protests over the last few years, was the creation of the 1979 revolution that replaced an autocratic king with an autocratic holy man.
Nevertheless what's going on in Egypt is pivotal. In terms of history and significance Egypt is a far more influential country than Tunisia. If a despot is overthrown here, the dictator-ridden Middle East will be asking where next?