Egypt’s power vacuum will do little to help a disintegrating tourism industry

Mohamed Morsi is little mourned by Luxor’s unemployed tour guides, but the prospects for the hospitality sector remain grim

For more than 30 months, tour guide Muhammad Mahmoud has had the ruins of the Medinet Habu temple on the west bank of the Nile largely to himself.

The tourist groups that once flocked here no longer come. Even Egyptians researching their rich heritage and history stay away these days. Across the river, where the travellers used to stay, hotel occupancy rates are at less than 5%, and there is no end to the crisis in sight.

Horse buggies stand idle, souvenir shops stand with their shutters lowered and the floating restaurants remain moored in the eddying waters. Egypt’s post-Mubarak tourist slump is being felt more acutely here than anywhere else in the country. So too are the new political tribulations.

Locals in Luxor – especially those whose livelihoods depend on the tourist trade – have largely embraced the ousting of president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood support base.

Morsi’s election in June last year did nothing to reverse plummeting fortunes in Luxor after the fall of Mubarak. Instead, some of his government’s decisions seem to have made things worse.

His nomination of a member of the Islamist group Gamaa Islamiya – which is believed to have instigated the massacre of 62 people in Luxor in 1997 – as governor of the city sparked an immediate revolt.

The ramifications were quickly felt in the capital; the appointment, which was soon overturned, was deeply insensitive to a region already on its knees and was used as one of the main reasons to condemn Morsi’s judgment.

The governor’s office is now run by military men. One of them, General Ala’a Harrass, secretary-general to the governor, said: “The appointment of the governor did not really matter, because the city was in bad shape already. He did not even take his job. The people here rejected him outright.

“When the new government came under the auspices of improving tourism it became obvious that there was no will to do any such thing. It meant the death of Luxor.

“Both Luxor and Aswan depend on intellectual tourism and they were really hit hard.”

Never entirely comfortable with how to address the 5,000 years of pre-Islamic history scattered among Egypt’s vast deserts, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed an unlikely candidate to champion the nation’s tourist industry. But while Morsi’s demise is largely welcomed, it is not seen as an end to the problem.

As a baking desert wind whipped around the Habu site, Mahmoud the tour guide said he believed more trouble lay ahead unless political compromises were soon reached.

“There is a future for Egypt only if there is reconciliation,” he said, his tan sand-scarf flapping against his jalabiya. “Without it, we face more of this,” he said, gesturing at the empty temple.

Nearby, a 5,000-year-old wall etching depicts a conquering pharaoh alongside the scratched-out face of his vanquished rival.

In this case, the defeated were likely to be the sea peoples, who came from Syria and Palestine; another etching depicts a pile of tongues cut from their mouths.

Rulers and their regimes have risen and fallen throughout Egyptian history, and the aftermath has usually been the same: the eradication of their legacy.

Morsi’s brief time as leader is a speck on the historical timeline, but there is a sense in Luxor that it may prove to be far more significant if his supporters are not given a stake in what comes next.

“They should not be ruled out or isolated,” Harrass said of the disenfranchised Brotherhood. “Such a group should not be oppressed. However, if they want to play a political role, they must not go to the street.”

Luxor’s Islamists have kept a low profile over the past week. None would speak to the Guardian, citing “reasons that cannot be divulged”.

Unlike in Cairo, there have been no rallies here calling for Morsi’s return. And nor have there been demonstrations against the Egyptian military chief, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

But supporters of Sisi have also stayed off the streets, and his posters, ubiquitous elsewhere in the country have not been pasted to walls.

“Tourists measure the security of Luxor by the security of Cairo, which is a political city,” said Harrass. “We don’t have the same turbulence here.

“We are all optimistic after the latest correction. But this does not rule out terrorist attacks here or there.”

Outside the general’s wood-panelled office, dozens of riot police were sleeping in the shade of their trucks.

“Without the military, Hosni Mubarak would not have gone,” Harrass said of the heavy security presence. “The military is always on the people’s side.” © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds