“Cairo is a city of 20 million people — and 50 million cars,” or so the locals say. Famous for its pyramids and other antiquity, this ancient and once deeply influential society today suffers from extremes of poverty and a pronounced division between rich and poor. Egypt, the world’s 15th most populous country, sees 95% of that populace living on just 5% of the land, in the fertile Nile Valley. Bordered by Libya, Israel, and Sudan, it is surrounded by conflict and not without its own, with multiple terrorist incidents in every decade since the 1990s — and as recently as a foiled attack just hours before this posting. To say its people and resources are stressed would be an understatement.
Egypt today is 90% Muslim, in particular Sunni, though officially secular with freedom of religion guaranteed. Interfaith marriages are not uncommon, and lavishly celebrated with easy comingling among the faithful. The Coptic Orthodox Christian minority, however, has been the target of discrimination and violence, including a number of terrorist attacks.
Beginning with pharaohs in ancient times, Egypt has a very long history of monarchy or its equivalent. With its fair share of queens who ruled the land, women of the uppermost class have long wielded some measure of power — even as the country’s overall record on gender inequality is questionable. The last king of Egypt was deposed in 1953, and the country’s many palaces today serve as relics to its past.
Egypt maintains quite a few of its traditions, though more modern styles may be seen in Cairo itself. Nightlife in the capital city is pronounced, with a number of nontraditional venues. Modernity, including social as well as political, has been creeping in since the country’s ‘Arab Spring’ revolts in early 2011, when former President Mubarak was forced to resign from his 30-year rule. Although the current government is also in question, the people express hope for a better tomorrow.
Egyptians have a particular passion for music and dance, from antiquity to today, the lion goddess Bastet also a deity of music. With the most prolific film industry in the Arab world, the music videos produced in the country are internationally recognised; as the originator of the craft, its bellydancing is renowned. Traditional Sufi zikr rituals are included in the folk genre, while today the indie music scene is contributing to and reflecting life in the streets — and the revolution.
Egypt’s Mena House in Giza embodies the nation’s place on the world stage. Built for a pasha as a pair of hunting lodges at the foot of the pyramids, one facing sunrise and the other sunset, it soon became a hotel for the world’s rich and famous, its luxurious features exuding Egyptian culture. Used as an Australian army barracks in WWI and seeing Churchill’s conference with multiple delegations in WWII, home to political and philanthropic events as well as concerts and film, the hotel has played a larger-than-life role in Egypt’s modern history.
The contrast — between the classes, the gap between rich and poor, between Old Cairo and New — couldn’t be greater. New Cairo, filled with grand homes and gardens in gated communities, built for the elite, with endless water and electricity while these go scarce in the rest of the city, cause resentment and anger among the masses to grow — and just might spark a new revolution.