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At Pyramids, unrest empties desert of tourists

At the pyramids, something is wrong with the picture. The Sphinx is still there, gazing out inscrutably over the sands of Giza on the outskirts of Cairo.
/ Source: Reuters

At the pyramids, something is wrong with the picture. The Sphinx is still there, gazing out inscrutably over the sands of Giza on the outskirts of Cairo.

But as Daniel Tham from Malaysia pointed his camera to take some souvenir snaps Wednesday, something was missing from the much photographed view of the Great Pyramids -- the people.

Instead of the thousands of foreign visitors who normally flock by the busload, Tham and his friend were alone, and could take only long-distance shots of this wonder of the world, kept out by gates locked after the outbreak of unrest across Egypt.

"A lot is closed," Tham said. "A lot of tours are not able to carry us and there are no trains." He had been able to see only a fraction of the sights he planned to visit on his trip.

Most foreigners have not been so intrepid. They have flocked to airports trying to get out of the country, cancelled holidays if they had not yet arrived, and in doing so they have delivered a heavy blow to the Egyptian economy and its tourism industry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, sympathy for the pro-democracy demonstrators who have tried to unseat President Hosni Mubarak is in short supply among the guides and stallholders of Giza.

"We need peace," said Fouad Hassan, 63, as he stood outside his locked souvenir store. "People now are flying back home. How long will it take for these people to come back?"

Security
In central Cairo, street clashes surged back and forth around the Egyptian Museum, home to mummies and a treasure trove of antiquities from the time of the pharaohs which is another major focus of tourist activity in normal times.

Giza's pyramids, 15 km (10 miles) from Tahrir Square downtown, was much too quiet for the liking of the locals, some of whom felt Mubarak, in promising to stand down later in the year, had done the right thing and that protests should now end.

"He has done his best, you know," said Abdullah, 35, a tour guide with no tourists to guide. "He changed almost 90 percent or 95 percent of what they were looking for."

The dusty streets near the pyramids, usually bustling with camels, perfume vendors and sunburned visitors, were mostly deserted. Shopkeepers sitting by their shuttered storefronts complained that unrest had strangled their business and many echoed vigorous support for Mubarak, crediting him for security they said helped draw millions of tourists to Egypt a year.

Mubarak, dubbed "Pharaoh" by some Egyptians, has portrayed himself to Western allies and his own people as a bulwark of stability -- an image many have accepted in return for a government criticised as repressive, brutal and corrupt.

Mubarak's forces fought a violent Islamist insurgency in Egypt's south in the 1990s that included a bloody attack on tourists in Luxor, home to the Valley of the Kings and Karnak Temple. Soldiers guard tourist trains and man desert checkpoints around beach resorts and major attractions. It seemed to work.

"It's safe, it's very, very safe with Mubarak," said Ayman, a 25-year-old souvenir vendor, sitting outside a shop filled with postcards, papyrus, ceramic scarabs and alabaster pyramids.

The tourism industry has grown steadily over the last decade, weathering bomb attacks on resorts in the Sinai peninsula. Over 12 million tourists visited in Egypt in 2009, earning the country nearly $11 billion in revenue.

On a normal day, said Ayman, he might see 200 to 300 customers, mostly from Europe, at his store near the Sphinx. But Wednesday, he said, he had just three.

Yet his neighbour Gouda Fayed, 55, put the troubles into perspective as he drank tea by his empty souvenir store close by the monuments which have symbolised Egypt for 4,500 years.

He said: "I'm sure when everything settles down, it will all go back to normal."