Despite my best attempts to find a flight a little more conducive to an already mixed-up sleep schedule, my flight out of Cairo left at 3:30am. My experience getting to, and through, the airport processes was fascinating… and illustrative (in my view) of some of the challenges currently facing Egypt.
I’ve been lucky to travel quite extensively, so I’ve had the “pleasure” of seeing more than a few airports. Already on this investment trek, I’ve had 12 different flights, going through 12 different airports. Airports, generally speaking, aren’t particularly noteworthy. Just a portal to get from point A to point B. Some are certainly nicer than others, but most are usually unremarkable. This was not the case with the Cairo airport – it was truly remarkable… but for all the wrong reasons.
Some of the quirks associated with my arrival in Cairo were chalked up to corruption in the form of police check-points for anyone actually wanting to drive to the arrivals area. The departure process, on the other hand, was one of the craziest, most chaotic things I’ve ever been a part of.
I have a dear colleague and friend who is an Operations Management professor. Processes, systems, and efficiencies are the goal of operations management. If Singapore is a model of efficiency, Cairo is on the opposite end of the spectrum (at least on the spectrum I’ve witnessed first-hand). From my observations, the airport lacks many of the basic systems that are employed in airports around the globe to efficiently move people through. I’m afraid my professor friend’s head might explode out of frustration overload if she were to witness the international terminal at 1:30am in Cairo.
From manufactured traffic jams to human and luggage cart stampedes to just enter the terminal building, it was quite the experience. Pushing your way into the terminal is just the first of many additional adventures to actually get on the plane. There are inefficiencies at every turn and everyone is frustrated and tired.
What’s more, it appeared from the eye-rolling and shrugs of resignation that nearly everyone in the terminal (travelers and workers alike) seemed to recognize there’s a better way, a more efficient way, an easier way to accomplish the goal… but they just can’t quite get there. The system they have has momentum and it’s difficult to envision a different way.
The airport experience is illustrative of the current state of affairs in Egypt. They experience crises (through corruption, police aggression, political turmoil) on a regular basis. Old and failing infrastructure throughout the country is trying the patience of even the most patriotic Egyptians. Inefficiencies everywhere are creating frustrations everywhere. The sense of resignation I heard from several in Cairo expressed their understanding that there may be a better way, a more efficient way, an easier way… but they just can’t quite get there. Ease, speed, and efficiency are goals that are a bit too lofty for Egypt right now. Their focus is instead on stability and incremental change, imperfect as it admittedly is.
This is not to say that Egypt can’t or won’t become far more efficient with time. It’s just not a top priority at this point. Stability, stability, stability – that’s the war cry for now. The region could certainly benefit from stability. Egypt may not have the ideal government (and perhaps far from ideal) or well-formed, mature markets at this point, but they’ll keep chipping away at it. The pyramids weren’t built overnight and neither will be a modern, thriving Egypt. Let’s hope the taste of increased personal freedoms experienced as part of the revolution will whet the appetite for more freedoms over time.