If you have a desire to go to Egypt, don't hesitate! You will LOVE it as I did. And, when you go, prepare yourself for a certain degree of culture shock if you are not accustomed to non-western cultures. I had friends tell me how persistent Egyptians can be in trying to sell you trinkets (most of which aren't worth more than one tenth of what they'll ask for them), trying to give you carriage rides and camel rides, trying to open doors or help you cross a street or emile at you... all in hopes - no, expectation - that you'll give them money. I was unprepared for this as someone who has traveled mainly to more developed nations where poverty is not so prevalent. And please remember, these are desperate people. Although I was put off by their persistence I had to keep in mind how hard I would push people, too, if my family's livelihood depended on it.
I'll leave you with 2 pieces of advice:
1) Nothing is free in Egypt. NOTHING. Not even the gifts and the smiles. Not even a business card. If somebody tells you something is free, it will cost you in the end.
2) Don't trust what Egyptians tell you when there's money or potential business involved. Horse and carriage drivers will tell you anything to get you into their carriages and will - both literally and figuratively - take you for a ride. Merchants will tell you anything to get you into their stores and will lock the door until you buy something (or in my case actually break out). Children will tell you ANYTHING to get money off you and they are VERY adept at knowhing what to say to travellers from everywhere! One even told me he loved Canada because his father had lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He gave me a gift of some post cards. When he got close enough to me, he stole 50LE from me.
Trust your guide and do as he says and you'll have a great holiday!
Egypt has so many contrasts. For a country so rich in history and antiquities I found the poverty striking. For a country so steeped in its religions (Islam and Coptic Christian) it has strikingly few rules (or at least a striking lack of enforcement). People do what they must to get by and nobody seems to care. I do hope that with the new government that will take shape, soon, they find their compass and get theri economy on track.
Also, FYI, our guide took us to 4 "special" souvenir places during our trip: A papyrus institute, an oriental rug making school, a perfumery and an alabaster carving workshop. The wares at all these places were stunningly beautiful: second to none. The prices were also tremendously inflated over the prices you might pay at one of the many fair trade shops that are popping up around Egypt.
These places cater to tour groups. They put on demonstrations (which were quite good) give you drinks for cheap or even free, give you the complete history of the art and then allow you to browse and buy with (relatively) little pressure. Bargaining is expected but, even at the agreed upon prices, you'll still pay twice for these things that you might in a fair trade shop because these places give kickbacks to your guides, your drivers and everyone involved. The artists make relatively little compared to the final sale value because, with such an operation and a structure of so many kickbacks, they have to price things high in order to maintain their business.
I bought 2 Papyrus paintings for which the institute wanted just over $1000 US. We finally settled on $400 US plus 3% for the credit card transaction fee. I could never in a thousand years have obtained these in Canada or the USA for even close to that little money but for Egypt that was a lot. I was looking at alabaster vases at the alabaster workshop, too, but they would not dip below $60 for the one I wanted and I wasn't willing to spend more than $40. Upon visiting a fair-trade shop in Luxor I noticed she had similar but larger alabaster vases. She was selling them for a fixed price of $25 US with the majority of the profit going to the artists. I asked her about my papyrus paintings and she said she could probably have obtained them for me for $300 or less ith her connections.
I don't mind paying a premium for beautiful things - and everything I bought was exquisite - but not at the expense of artisans. I know these institutes and workshops provide excellent quality goods - in some cases recognized by their department of arts and culture - and that they have to charge more to maintain their business model but I would far rather see the majority of my cash going to artists and not to my tour guide and my driver who I'm already going to tip at the end of a trip. A friend and I ducked out of the perfume demonstration and sales pitch because we saw a fair trade shop next door and we went in there. Our guide spoke with us after about how disappointed he was that we didn't attend the demonstration on how perfume is made - the Egyptian way - and that we should stay with the group for those events. He went on to say how important it is to support these local places and the economy. Fair enough but we bought a LOT from this shop and would have bought nothing from the perfumery. I can only guess he gets a set amount for each tourist he brings in and, although I understand his motivation, I don't like wasting my time so someone else can get paid. If I did I'd be looking for time-share condos :)
If this concerns you, too, look for fixed-price shops like the Habiba Galleries in Luxor and Karnak (http://www.habibagallery.com/index.php) that buy directly from the artists and crafts-people and who support women in the workplace. All the major guide books will give you great ideas on where to find other fair trade shops too. I even met some of the women who sewed the textiles I bought because the owner hired them to work in her store as sales people! It was truly wonderful.