Is Egypt safe for tourists?

Taking a break from my Iran-blogging to respond to travel writer Matthew Teller’s post, “Is Egypt safe for tourists?.”  I agree that Egypt is more or less safe for tourists and that Cairo is “no scarier than any other big city and less scary than many,” but I disagree with a number of other things he says in his post, particularly this:

“Police are extra-vigilant now around tourists. The local tourism industry knows it can’t afford to be even a tiny bit complacent. Nobody is taking any chances. Egypt, in some ways, is safer now for tourists than it was before 2011.”

Say what? This is demonstrably false.  Neither I nor anyone I know has observed this to be the case, and it’s spectacularly disproved by an incident to which Teller himself refers in his post:  The attack on the Semiramis InterContinental in downtown Cairo on January 29th this year.  New York Times blog “The Lede” summed up the events in a post titled “Under Attack, Cairo Hotel Tweets an S O S.”  Do read this stunning indictment of police/Ministry of Interior indifference to the safety of that hotel’s workers and guests and, by extension, Egypt’s entire tourism industry.  The reason that the staff of the Semiramis–one of Cairo’s most luxurious hotels–tweeted an SOS was that frantic calls to the police “went unanswered.”

But the lesson Teller derives from this incident is not that police can’t even be relied on to protect one of the main sources of desperately-needed hard currency, it’s that the areas in and around Tahrir Square are dodgy.  This is certainly true to some extent, but he focuses on the dodginess of downtown at the expense of other areas of the city.  He says that outside Tahrir “normality reigns,” and advises skittish tourists to stay in Dokki or Zamalek instead of downtown.  Dokki is where I was assaulted outside my apartment building in early 2012, and Dokki and Zamalek were where I witnessed two incidents of mob vigilante payback in the space of one week last year.  Yes, Jack Shenker of the Guardian was robbed at knifepoint this month in Garden City, but I have heard of similar incidents in the last couple weeks in Zamalek.  Indeed, crime is up all over, as detailed in this article in the Financial Times.  It’s true that the situation perhaps seems more disastrous than it actually is because there was virtually zero crime pre-revolution.  On the other hand, my intuition is that the official numbers are low, because I would bet that some people, knowing full well how useless the police are, don’t file reports.

(I also don’t agree that first-time visitors should skip Tahrir. First of all, many people who visit Egypt don’t just want to see the pharaonic and Islamic sites–they also followed the revolution at home on TV and the Internet and have an interest in the country’s contemporary history.  Construction site or no, closed Nile Hilton or no, Tahrir is a place imbued with world-historical significance now, and many people want to see it in person. Personally, one of the things I most like to show visitors is the stunningly beautiful, poignant, hilarious and touching revolutionary graffiti that lines Muhammad Mahmoud Street, just off Tahrir Square.  And while I agree with Teller that “the shops and cafes along the square’s eastern frontage are distinctly ordinary,” my favorite souvenir shop, Umm El Dounia, is just steps from the Square on Talaat Harb Street.  Though I suppose you could make the trek down to their Maadi branch.)

Painting of Mina Daniel, Muhammad Mahmoud Street.  Really, would you want to miss this?

Painting of Mina Daniel, Muhammad Mahmoud Street. Really, would you want to miss this?

As for Luxor and Aswan, Teller says that “group bookings are way down – which means independent travellers can reckon on quieter excursions and more rewarding encounters.”  My experience in Upper Egypt last December was that the decline in tourism in fact resulted in a palpable air of desperation, as people in the tourism industry aggressively tried to rip us off.  This is merely unpleasant, but it can shade into something more frightening, as described in this article from the Associated Press last December:  “In the southern city of Aswan, tour operator Ashraf Ibrahim was recently taking a group to a historic mosque when a mob of angry horse carriage drivers trapped them inside, trying to force them to take rides. The drivers told Ibrahim to steer business their way in the future or else they’d burn his tourist buses, he said.”

In short:  Egypt’s more or less safe for tourists, though distinctly less safe than it used to be.  But I actually believe that the relevant metric for gauging whether you should go is not safety, but pleasantness.  If you really want to see the pharaonic stuff with no hassle, maybe a tour is the best way; otherwise prepared to be hassled within an inch of your life by unscrupulous and aggressive touts.  However, Egypt has much more to offer than temples and tombs.  I recently hosted an independent traveler who told me she totally could have done without the Pyramids and Luxor; by contrast, she enjoyed the oases, and loved being showed around Cairo and Alex by people who lived there.  She’s even thinking about coming back.

Dakhla Oasis. Give me this over the Pyramids any day.

Dakhla Oasis. Give me this over the Pyramids any day.

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2 Responses to Is Egypt safe for tourists?

  1. Interesting. Thanks for the detailed reply. You make a lot of good points.

    It’s important to bear in mind, when quoting news reports to support an opinion, that – obviously – only the bad stuff makes the Daily Outrage. We are now hearing reports of muggings and assaults in Doqqi, Zamalek, Garden City, and elsewhere chiefly because they were virtually unknown before. Such crimes – and much, much worse – happen daily all over London, Miami, Moscow, Barcelona, Rome, and just about any big city in the world, yet are so familiar they simply don’t merit column-inches in the Outrage. Anyone could quote a fistful of news reports to give the impression that visiting any town above medium size from Nottingham to Nouakchott is equivalent to taking your life in your hands.

    The difference comes, perhaps, in the police response, which is now limited or non-existent in Cairo. But the fact that the police in Chicago will take a report of an assault seriously doesn’t mean Chicago is any safer than Cairo. It isn’t. Cairo is much safer.

    You’re right, there is desperation in the tourist-reliant south. It’s terribly sad. People are skipping meals because they don’t have enough money to eat. I’m sorry you felt uncomfortable. But was I “hassled to within an inch of my life”? Nothing like it. Not even close. I had a worse time walking through Covent Garden in London.

    The most important point you make is that Egypt must diversify its tourist economy. There is far too much reliance on historical sites, and not enough on cultural encounters and natural beauty. That, like many other current problems, is a legacy of dictatorship. I have written and spoken about it at length, and am trying to support innovation where I can. We all should.

  2. alif sikkiin says:

    Thanks for your comment. You’re right, “hassled to within an inch of your life” was ill-advised hyperbole.

    As for safety, you compare Cairo with Chicago. I don’t know Chicago, but I lived in NYC for ten years and my sense is that NYC is safer than Cairo, in that I know very very few people who have been mugged, whereas here I hear first-hand or second-hand stories more frequently. And in NYC I don’t have to go out of my way to avoid crowded places lest I be groped. But I agree with you that Cairo is on the whole no less dangerous than many cities in the world, and certainly much less dangerous than many. However, if you add sexual harassment/assault by strangers into the mix, I don’t think the picture is so clear.

    “There is far too much reliance on historical sites, and not enough on cultural encounters and natural beauty. That, like many other current problems, is a legacy of dictatorship.”

    This is so, so true.

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