The dearth of business has driven already predatory vendors and guides into a frenzy, with the U.S. Embassy in Egypt even issuing an alert in June about “over-aggressive vendors.” Visitors had come across “angry groups of individuals surrounding and pounding on the vehicles,” the embassy reported, “and in some cases attempting to open the vehicle’s doors.”
On my pyramid trip, one young guide jumped onto the back of our car and clung to the rear window, while our driver abruptly braked and zoomed ahead and wove from lane to lane to try to shake him off. Only a block later did the driver convince the guide’s friends to keep the young man off the bumper.
Then came the vendors inside the pyramid complex, who tried out their usual pitches before moving onto more desperate Plan Bs.
“There’s no business here, there are no more tourists,” one camel rider said, the ache in his voice sounding genuine. “I have a family. We need to eat.”
In the winding alleys of the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in old Cairo, merchants tried to physically stop what rare visitors they spotted walking through as they hocked limestone miniature pyramids and bright cotton fabrics.
Shop owner Mohamed Hafez said his sales had fallen by “100 percent” since Egyptians first took to the streets 2 1/2 years ago.
“There used to be a lot of tourists, a lot of nationalities,” Hafez said, while cooling down in the air-conditioned inner sanctum of his souvenir shop. “Now, it’s nothing. We just want safety, no more revolutions.”
Wooing back those visitors has become a top priority, even with all the military vehicles and checkpoints in the streets. Deniz Mustafa, a Dallas-based college student, had, in fact, flown into Cairo as part of a volunteer project inviting youth from around the world to visit and tout Egypt’s top tourist sites.
Two weeks after his arrival in July, however, Morsi was violently removed, and the volunteer project was cancelled. Mustafa responded by hitting the road and seeing Egypt, flying down to Luxor and up to the Red Sea resort of Dahab, where empty restaurants were offering 50 percent discounts on entire menus.
Mustafa and a fellow volunteer from China had since moved onto the Egyptian Museum, where they were studying the ancient granite statues of Egyptian nobles and the small wooden ships buried with pharaohs.
“Any time you go to a temple or climb Mount Sinai, you have a more personal experience now,” Mustafa said. “It’s just you and the tour guide up there.”
That peace was without a doubt a fragile one. The city still goes dead every Friday afternoon in anticipation of Muslim Brotherhood protests that can turn violent in an instant. Nighttime curfews were also in effect while I was there, effectively shutting down Cairo’s buzzing nightlife.
Everyone was nervously waiting for the Brotherhood’s response to the repression and expecting the worst. On one night in the bar of my hotel, the pops of explosions outside immediately silenced all conversation, as we wondered whether the violence was indeed back. A quick check out on the street confirmed they had only been fireworks.
For visitors, it all made for a rare glimpse into a proud country trying to figure out its future and also a chance to see Egypt free of many of the usual hassles. The dangers were real but mostly manageable.
The threat of a U.S. strike on Syria, however, made some Americans nervous about revealing their nationality. And if the political troubles flare up again in Egypt, even the bravest traveler will have to think twice about coming.
Associated Press Writer Alan Clendenning contributed to this story.