CAIRO — Beaches along Egypt’s north coast were jammed. It was a long weekend, and vacationers of all socioeconomic stripes had decided to soak in the rays by the Mediterranean. Cairo felt empty. Trains to the north coast were sold out. The highway was bumper to bumper.
But in the middle of the cheek-by-jowl working class beaches and the posh resorts stretching for hundreds of miles along the Egyptian coast, the hills over El Alamein stood empty.
Incredibly, these forlorn hills were the site of one of World War II’s most significant battles, often considered a critical turning point in the war. It was about the El Alamein battle that Churchill famously said: "This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
It was here that the Allies first defeated Erwin Rommel’s infamous Panzer fleet.
Today in El Alamein, a museum and two quiet cemeteries — one for the British one for the Germans — mark the battle site. They’re packed with history, tributes, and foreign tourists. Just one thing is missing: Egyptians. Suzan El Ayoubi had broken the trend. An Alexandrian living in Cairo, this lawyer had also come to the north coast to dip her feet in the water. But to her, visiting El Alamein was an important detour.
“Many Egyptians, they don’t go to see their monuments or to see what history left for them because of they’re ignorant,” she told me.
Egyptians may have become "spectators to their own history," as Author Fouad Ajami recently put it in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, referring to Arabs who are perpetuating the Middle East’s political paralysis. For Egyptians, this can apply as equally to the country's fabled past as to present-day politics.
It’s not uncommon in Cairo to meet a taxi driver who hasn’t strolled the grounds of the pyramids, or talk to an upper class student who’s never visited the city’s ancient market.
The Egyptian government has tried to help. At all historical sites, it offers one price to foreigners and another to Egyptians.
To visit the Great Pyramids at Giza, for example, it costs foreigners around $12. Egyptians pay 40 cents.
Still, Eyptians steer clear of these monuments. According to the Ministry of Tourism, they make up only about 5 percent of tourists visiting the sites each year.
“For a very long time, we took our sites for granted,” said ministry spokesperson Omayma El-Husseini.
Many say that the ignorance of and a lack of appreciation for Egypt’s history is the result of a failed education system.
Some, including El Ayoubi, blame former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser nationalized the education system, bringing it to the most remote corners of the country. But, with resources stretched too thin, many say his policies led to a dramatic decline in the system as a whole.
Nasser also politicized the curriculum, making the Arabic language, Arab nationalism, and certain vocations cornerstones of educational life.
“The lack of education leads to a person’s total loss of orientation, of a sense of where they come from and whatever cultural heritage they have,” said Egyptian historian Samir A. Rafaat in a recent book, "Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the brink of a Revolution."
The book’s author, John R. Bradley, called the education system “bloated and inefficient.”
El-Husseini, from the Tourism Ministry, said the government has only recently tried to help put history back in the classroom. “We have a number of programs” that were created in the 1990s, she said, “that have been getting primary schools to incorporate the historical sites” into their lesson plans.
Teachers have more often begun to take their students on field trips to sites like the Pyramids. The Egyptian government has also started publicizing its monuments more to its own people, as part of an effort to get them to re-engage.
These are small steps for what some view as a problem beyond repair.
There is an old saying in the Middle East: “Egypt writes, Lebanon prints and Iraq reads.”
If there’s one truism here, it’s that many Egyptians say their countrymen aren’t big readers.
“They don’t read about their history,” El Ayoubi lamented.
If she’s right, the fierce battle of El Alamein may be lost on Egyptians forever.