26Apr2012

How Safe is Egypt After the Revolution?

How Safe is Egypt After the Revolution

“How safe is Egypt now?” Still a topical question, so I’ve updated this post on 16 20 June 2012. Deletions are marked with a strikethrough and additions are underlined.

How Safe Is Egypt?

As we approach the end of our time in Egypt, I’m going to address the hoary question of “How safe is Egypt after the revolution?”

I have seen a lot of blog posts on this topic, which seem to fall into two categories. “Raging revolutionaries and dangerous military junta – avoid!” and “What’s all the fuss about?! It’s safe as houses here!”

Neither of these are, IMHO, correct.


The aspect of last year’s revolution the Western media focused on was freedom and celebrations in Tahrir Square. But talking to ordinary Egyptians, one gets a different picture.

Many prisons were emptied after the revolution, and the police disappeared from the streets. The resultant wave of looting, rape and robbery has died down a little, but there are still more criminals and fewer police on the streets. Kidnappings, bank robberies, carjacking and motorbike robberies are rising, as, it appears, are serious sexual assaults.

Further, the revolution has wreaked havoc on an already weak economy and tourist numbers are down, which means people are more desperate. So the day to day hassle experienced by the typical tourist in Egypt is greater, as there are fewer tourists and more people struggling to make more money off them, often by illegitimate means.

Before the revolution, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was banned. It is now the dominant political force. A number of Egyptian women (and men) have told me that the rise in militant Islam has made life even more difficult for women than before and that women feel less safe on the streets.


On a macro level, political protests remain ongoing in most cities, typically after Friday prayers.

There is under a month to go to Egypt’s presidential elections, with two months to go before the President is announced, and a high profile trial due to start in May. All of these things are likely to produce problems on the streets.

Both sides in the presidential runoff are currently claiming fraud. Although, as the junta recently abolished Parliament in what looks like a judicial coup, the results are most likely moot.

Currently, largescale protests are ongoing in the major cities against military rule. There is no hostility to tourists but an ever-present risk of violence and the political situation is volatile, and Egypt is less safe than it was.

The breakdown of control in the aftermath of the dictatorship has also unleashed simmering tribal issues, some of which impact significantly on tourists.

In the interior of Sinai tourist kidnappings are not unusual, while the Western Desert, Cairo and Port Said also have their challenges.

I’ll explain this in a bit more detail…


Sexual Harassment and Sex Crime – Women’s Safety

Egypt was generally acknowledged as one of the sexual harassment capitals of the world, and thanks to weak policing and (arguably) rising Islamism, this is getting worse, not better, since the Revolution.

Mona Eltahawy has written eloquently on Egyptian misogyny, and one conservative estimate suggests at least 200,000 Egyptian women were raped every year even before the revolution. Since the revolution, numbers appear to have risen.

Even dressed conservatively – that is to say, covered to neck, wrists and ankles with a scarf around my neck and shoulders – and travelling with my young son, I have been grabbed, groped, masturbated at, verbally abused so loudly and so constantly that both I and my son know the Arabic for “shit” and “whore”, propositioned, followed and endlessly and offensively complimented on my beauty.

This is enervating, to put it mildly.

Now, most rapists target local women, not tourists, and most sexual harassment is petty, rather than violent.

Still, the British FCO reports that rapes of British citizens are on the rise: they dealt with 26 cases of rape and serious sexual assault last year and, although tourist numbers are a fraction of what they were, reported incidents are rising. The US State Department is also dealing with more reports of sexual assault since the revolution.

Women will experience less harassment when travelling with an adult male, but this is by no means a panacea. Solo women should not expect much sympathy from police.


Sexual Harassment and Sex Crime – Men’s Safety

Amusingly, one Egyptian Arabic translation programme responds to the input “Do you know a gay-friendly venue?” with the advice “You must never say this.” It is correct.

One especially charming aspect of Egyptian underclass male sexuality is that, while it is acceptable to violently assault men who identify or present as gay, and gay men have been sentenced to hard labour, it is also fine to engage in sexual activity with the same sex – PROVIDED you are a top.

There is a flourishing but deeply undercover gay scene in Cairo, and on the streets attractive male solo travellers can expect invitations to the “hammam” (bathroom).

All the same homophobia is rampant, and Egyptian police have used Gaydar to entrap men into activities for which they can serve hard labour.

It’s worth pointing out that straight men who choose to defend their female partner’s honour cannot expect observers to support them.


How Safe is Egypt? Crime

Most crime directed against tourists in Egypt has always been petty: pickpocketing, change money scams, extortion of various forms. But since the revolution violent crime is on the rise.

Motorbike robbery is on the increase — one woman in Luxor was seriously injured after being dragged at speed behind a bike and then released — as is armed crime, including carjackings.

Convoys are necessary on some roads at night, particularly in Sinai, and if you are self-driving, you should stay with your convoy.

There have been multiple kidnappings of foreigners in the Sinai for political reasons, while kidnapping of Egyptian children for money is on the rise. Recent tourist kidnappings in the Sinai have been focused on releasing Bedouin from jail.


Kidnappings and Other Issues in the Sinai

Antipathies in the Middle East go back many, many thousands of years, and that between the Bedouin people of the desert and the Egyptian authorities has been ongoing since at least the time of the pharaohs.

Due to police weakness after the Revolution, there is turmoil in parts of the sparsely-inhabited Sinai peninsula, where many Bedouin are angry that Egyptians are benefiting from tourism, while they remain dirt poor.

The British FCO advises against all travel to Sinai north of the Suez-Taba road, where there is an ongoing conflict with Bedouin involving oil pipelines, drugs and smuggling to the Palestinian territories, and policemen are routinely kidnapped.

In tourist Sinai, particularly on the Saint Catherine’s Road, there have been a number of kidnappings of Westerners, even when riding with police escort (there were two in the last week we were there).

All foreigners were handed back quickly and unharmed. But, as with the armed Bedouin who have taken over resorts, blocked roads and extracted informal taxes from passing cars, this should not be taken lightly.

A convoy system is on place in most roads in the Sinai peninsula at night. Public buses with police escorts are generally safer than microbuses.

That said, life in the all-inclusive hotels of Sharm-el-Sheikh and the backpacker haven of Dahab continues, much of the time, as normal, though even the most obtuse traveller would be hard-pressed to miss the manned, mounted machine guns at the checkpoints.


Football Issues in Port Said

The industrial port town of Port Said is not on many people’s bucket lists. It was the site of epic riots last year after 70-plus football fans were killed at a match.

One set of fans, known as Ultras, were a driving force in the Revolution.

How so? Well, as one Egyptian explained to me, “They are used to fighting the police, because they do it all the time at football matches. So in Tahrir, when people like me couldn’t fight, they fought for us.”

The trial of those considered responsible for the deaths restarts on 5 May in Cairo, where many hardcore fans have gone.is underway, and Ultras have been active in the protests against the verdict in the corruption trial of Mubarak and his sons and will likely be active in other protests.

There are still ongoing protests in Port Said, and if the fans don’t like the result of the trial, these are highly likely to spill over into fullscale riots.


Western Desert

Thanks to the security vacuum, there is even more intertribal feuding in the Western Desert than usual. So expeditions going a significant distance into the remote desert now require fullscale army and police escorts. The required permits are harder to obtain than they were pre-revolution.


How Safe Is Cairo?

There are ongoing protests after Friday prayers in most major cities, particularly in Cairo, and notably in Tahrir Square against the military junta, which carry with them a high risk of violence, although directed at fellow Egyptians rather than tourists. Most of these are small and pass without incident, and a number of potentially inflammatory ones, notably the Land Day marches, have been cancelled for public safety.

Voting for the presidential election is scheduled for 23-24 May, which will almost certainly mean, in some places, violence and intimidation at the voting booths, though likely not in the tourist areas.

Results should be announced on 21 June, which is likely to be a flashpoint for protests.

Over ten people were killed and scores injured during violent protests in Abbasiya, Cairo, in May, and tensions are running high in the cities at the moment for two reasons.

Firstly, there is intense public anger about the verdict in the trial of Mubarak and his sons, which is currently going to appeal, which produced largescale protests in Tahrir Square.

Secondly, Egypt is entering the final round of its presidential elections, a runoff between two men, the official Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Mursi, and Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

In the unlikely event that Shafiq wins, Islamists and liberals will be united in rage and outrage, and large scale, violent protests are highly likely. The result should be announced on 21 June.

Foreigners waving cameras around without the support of a press card and an international media organisation have been beaten and arrested on Tahrir Square, and women in crowds of protesters should expect to be groped.

The British FCO advice page, Al-Ahram, and all Cairo hotels provide guidance on where to avoid on Fridays and other days when trouble is due: I would, personally, not plan travel to Cairo until the situation is clarified.


Egypt is a wonderful, endlessly fascinating country in many ways, and can be very rewarding to travel in. Most people who follow basic safety precautions when travelling Egypt and stay well away from protests will encounter nothing more unpleasant than aggressive touts, the odd smalltime scam and, for a woman without a husband, ongoing sexual harassment.

Still, Egypt is a desperately poor country currently transitioning from a command dictatorship into…

And, well, here the jury’s out…

What is clear is that crime is rising, tribal conflicts are increasing, political conflicts are ongoing and solo women in particular should think harder than usual before travelling here.

Is Egypt safe, right now? Honestly, it depends how things play out. In general, resort towns are safer than the major cities, because the population have their livelihoods invested in keeping tourists safe. If I had a holiday booked right now, I certainly wouldn’t cancel it. But nor would I commit to flights until the situation’s clearer.

Personally, however, I would recommend you visit, and visit soon, because — and I hate to say this — things may well get worse, rather than better, in the future.

I would currently advise against spending time in Egyptian cities around the time of the presidential result: hopefully tourist areas in resort towns will remain relatively calm if the wrong result comes in.

28 Comments

  1. I have to comment about some points in this one:

    Western Desert: I haven’t been around many places there, but as for my friend who is working there, based in Siwa and drives his own cars to all other oases or deep in the desert upon request, he ne mentioned any difficulties in obtaining the required permits. On contrary, he always says that Police in those polices is very co-operative specially when its foreigner tourists that are on the car, giving out their phone numbers for emergency and acting immediately upon request.
    He did, however, mention that on certain days it is impossible to go out into the open desert or even on dirt roads connecting the oases, and these are when the police is expecting smugglers to be on that road or coming back from Lybia on that day, and that is only because they have orders that any moving object in the desert should be shot at, as there are no visitors permit that is given on that day.
    you can not expect what those days will be, unless you work for the Egyptian Intelligence department :P

    Port Said: I would like to add something here, which might be slightly out of point, but this wasn’t going to happen if it was any other team that was playing in Port Said. That is to say, Port Said’s local team “Al-Masry” and the away team that was playing with them “Al-Ahly” are long time rivals and it is always expected that there will be fights during those matches, and that is why, under normal circumstances, this specific match whether in Cairo or in Port Said is usually HEAVILY guarded. But as you mentioned, because the Ultras of the Al-Ahly fans (and also Ultras of other football teams) were one of the leading forces in the revolution, there were almost no police security at the match at all. A simple, rather usual, fight that started at the match ended in a massacre of the Ultras…

    That’s all for now, there was another comment I had while reading that I can’t remember anymore :D so until then..

    • Theodora says:

      That’s interesting about the Western Desert. Why I said “long expeditions” was because I was told by a group of expats who’d done a trip recently — a big expedition for a fortnight, going a long, long way out — that it had taken two months to get their permits because of security issues around the oil fields, and tribal violence, and that they’d had to have a three-car convoy (their one, plus police, plus army).

      So: it could have been the length of their expedition that caused the troubles. And possibly where they were starting from, which I think was not Siwa. How long does Buckley go out for?

      As regards Port Said — thanks for that. The Ultra thing is REALLY hard for non-Egyptians to understand.

  2. Wow. Ok, now I’m very glad we went when we did. How sad. Egypt has an embarrassment of riches. We saw sights that would be major draws anywhere else and were little known afterthoughts there. Although I suspect that you’re quite right, I hope fervently that you are wrong.

    • Theodora says:

      Well, I’m not sure this is the way it’s going. But talking to liberals who are going to be voting for an ex-Muslim Brotherhood guy because he’s the closest chance they have at getting a liberal President, well… Guys are tactically voting between the lesser of several evils, typicslly.

  3. Theodora, exquisitely detailed article. As usual, you present a broad picture of what’s going on in the region. What do you think are the chances of a clean election? With intimidation tactics from various sides?

    • Theodora says:

      I am not honestly sure how clean the election will be. The last elections weren’t clean, but then there were fewer candidates.

      My guess is that there will be some cheating for Amr Moussa, *current president*, ex-Mubarak cabinet, army’s favourite — but also a good pick for the liberals — and that if he does win everyone will cry foul…

      EDIT! Moussa was Arab League Secretary-General, not President.

  4. Jenn says:

    Wow wow wow. You are one brave lady! I’d love to go the Egypt but honestly it scares me too much especially after reading this. Fascinating read!

    • Theodora says:

      It’s not that scary, provided you are cautious. But some of the standard precautions — where we are now is at heart quite conservative, so guidelines are, don’t swim on your own, only swim fully-clothed unless you’re with a guide at a remote place, don’t walk through the palm orchards on your own, etc — get a bit wearing after a while.

      But it isn’t an easy destination for solo or quasi-solo female travel. I’m not a solo female traveller, because I have my son with me, but he is not as much protection against some of this crap as I had assumed he would be…

  5. Before the revolution, I read an interesting stat about crime in Egypt as compared to Canada http://www.nationmaster.com/compare/Canada/Egypt/Crime.
    What is interesting that crime in some cases is still relatively small compared to even such ‘safe’ countries such as Canada. I think I even read an article about the fact that the number of crimes in all of Egypt was smaller than in Washington, DC (can’t find the reference now, sorry). I think that is worth taking into consideration. Like many government travel advisory sites, the smart traveller should avoid places known for crime, protests etc.
    That said, due to the political unrest in 2011 and 12, we decided to skip it as one of our rtw destinations.
    We will visit for sure, but perhaps when the situation clarifies a bit more.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks for your comment, Martin.

      I’d agree that violent crime appears to be lower in Egypt, although again in the wave of lawlessness after the revolution I’m honestly not sure who was reporting crime, or counting it for that matter — nor am I, to be honest, sure how much I’d trust Egyptian crime statistics because of the whole issues around bribery, corruption, under-reporting, yada yada…

      What most statistics are missing, for example, are crimes like rape, which is hardly ever reported and can (or could) be excused if the rapist married the victim. Ditto honour crimes…

      Ditto, for that matter, pickpocketing, which most foreigners are likely to write off as a loss rather than go to the hassle of filing a police report.

  6. […] can travel but the reality is not everyone actually can. It helps put things into perspective.How Safe is Egypt After the Revolution? on Travels With A Nine Year Old: Very well detailed analysis on how safe or unsafe Egypt is right […]

  7. Chad says:

    The facts you shared about sexual harassment were truly shocking to me. I am planning to visit Egypt later this month with my girlfriend and now I am somewhat concerned for her safety. I am a very large and intimidating man, but I wonder if that would make a difference to these disgusting individuals?

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Chad,

      Firstly, the sexual harassment is VASTLY reduced if you are with a man. That doesn’t mean your GF won’t get the odd stare and the odd piece of verbal harassment, but, dressed appropriately and with a man, it will be much, much less than I’ve experienced. You can (based on my experience with male friends) expect a LOT of comments on your beautiful wife, though, which are best dealt with with a holiday smile and a “thank you!”

      Whereabouts are you headed? Generally, the Red Sea resorts (Sharm, Hurghada, etc.) are most relaxed from the point of view of sexual harassment — they’re also more used to Western standards of dress and more relaxed about that — and the cities are worst. I’d also keep an eye on the political situation if you’re in Cairo in particular, as there has been significant violence there this last week: Fridays are the day when the big protests normally happen.

      But I would avoid reacting aggressively to harassment if you can. It doesn’t help any. And I’d also be aware that many Egyptians are lovely, charming people and you should try not to let the bad apples who dominate most tourists’ experience shape your view of the country too much.

      Cheers,

      Theodora

  8. Hamida says:

    Are you serious ??
    Why are you people so narrow minded? Islam has never liked sexual harassment!! Bloody educate yourself about Islam before you go around accusing the religion. And next time, bloody heck! Learn to differentiate religion from culture. Jheeeeeeez arghhh!!!

    • Theodora says:

      Some advice for you, step by step, because you’re clearly not the sharpest tool in the toolbox.

      1: Get yourself an English dictionary — you have a UK email address, so I’m guessing you’ll have one to hand.
      2: Look up the words “Islam” and “Islamic”.
      3: Look up the words “Islamist” and “Islamism”.
      4: Reread my post.
      5: Reread your comment.
      6: Ask yourself who here is not differentiating religion and “culture” (technically politics, but let’s not split hairs).
      7: Explain to me what you mean by “you people”.

      Kthxbai

      • Jamal says:

        I am Egyptian , yes Theodora is right, Egypt is so dangerous now and in fact we are organizing an educational website to advise good people not to come Egypt for tourism or investments. Corruption and dangers are FAR more than you heard hear.

  9. Ryan says:

    Hello,

    Do you know any particulars of the current situation in Cairo? Though my trip is quite a ways off in the future, I was hoping to be visiting the capital city with an Arabic-speaking Iraqi friend in May. Most reports I’ve read seem to suggest that I won’t be in any great danger traveling, so long as I keep my head about me and don’t wander off somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula.

    Unfortunately, I’ve not heard much about Cairo or Alexandria. What exactly is dangerous about the cities? Are the protests especially violent because of the participants or because of police crackdowns?

    I’m very much looking forward to visiting and will not easily be dissuaded, but would still like to be fairly well educated on what’s going on and where.

    Thanks!

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Ryan,

      My impression is that at the moment Cairo and Alex are relatively calm, but with Friday protests in Tahrir Square: there’s potentially a big one today because it’s the anniversary of the 23 July revolution. Ahram Online is a good current source of info, http://english.ahram.org.eg/, as is the British FCO, which I link to above.

      There’s still ongoing tension between the Brotherhood and the Military over the issue of the Parliament and, basically, who now holds power: but May is a long way off. Everything could be calm and rosy then. There could be another revolution in play or a huge military crackdown. None of the city troubles target tourists.

      As far as I’m aware at the moment you can do all the typical stuff in Cairo (they closed the Pyramids over the election), but I can’t speak for ten months in the future: I’d say plan the trip but don’t necessarily book flights this far in advance unless they’re fully refundable.

      Cheers,

      Theodora

  10. Nina says:

    Hello,

    My American mother and South American father have landed on Egyptian soil and I am honestly more than a little worried about them at the moment. They’ll be there for a few years and have mostly only traveled in Latin America. I spent the day reading your blog and others, hoping to get as much information as I could to share with them. This post (and comments) was particularly helpful.

    It seems as though critical changes are constant there. I find it difficult to keep up with it all, and get an honest picture of what day to day life must be like for foreigners. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate reading your blog and getting to know Egypt through your eyes.

    Best Regards,
    Nina

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Nina,

      I probably need to update this to reflect the latest goings-on — tensions between the new president and the army, at the moment.

      First up, the problems in North Sinai are not likely to impact on any visitors. That’s because all governments advise against visiting, and locals will also advise against visiting, so that is unlikely to harm them.

      Secondly, there’s no tourist/foreigner-specific violence happening. Most expats live safely and happily in Egypt, but you do need to be careful at certain times. what will they be doing in Egypt?

      Theodora

  11. Karishma says:

    Hi,

    I’m planning to travel by myself to Egypt in December. I still haven’t booked my tickets and am a little concerned after reading this post of yours. Would you still advice against it?

    Thanks.

    • Theodora says:

      I wouldn’t advise against travel to Egypt, Karishma, and I can’t predict where Egypt will be at in December, and it depends where you’ll be going. At the moment, it seems politically quite calm after the film protests, and the resort areas in Sinai are still considered safe, although North Sinai is in chaos.

      Now… How much solo travel have you done, and where are you planning to go?! I wouldn’t advise against solo female travel to Egypt altogether, and solo female travel in the Sinai (Dahab and Sharm) will be fine — Dahab’s very good because it’s easy to buddy up with people there, male and female, there are lots of indie travellers, and it’s a lovely little spot. Likewise, the tourist hotels in Sharm are very safe spaces for women. Dressed conservatively, Nubia (Aswan and Abu Simbel) and the oasis towns are fine.

      African Egypt — Cairo and Luxor in particular — are not destinations I’d recommend for a first solo female independent travel journey, not because you’ll be in danger, but because the hissing, sexual comments, stares and occasional grab gets very wearing and could be quite distressing if you’re not used to it. I can get the number of a good female tour guide — joining group tours organised by places you are staying, or river cruises, are all ways around the harassment factor. Even Egyptian women in full niqab experience harassment.

      Egypt is a beautiful, historic, fascinating place, and I wouldn’t want to put you off altogether. But, let me know what you’re planning to do, and what kind of travel style you’re planning, and I can give more advice. I’ve got a lot of different posts on Egypt — if you flick through the pages here http://www.escapeartistes.com/category/places/egypt-2/ – you’ll get an idea of how wonderful it is and also of what the challenges are.

  12. Tim says:

    Thanks for the great article and heads up. We are in a similar situation to yours…we’re traveling for a year teaching our kids about the world. In fact, my son sounds quite similar to yours.

    We are in fact booked and going to Egypt. However, from start to finish we’re simply doing a tour of the main sites fully escorted. We needed to use Cairo as a hub to the Middle East and East Africa and I just couldn’t bear to be in Cairo and not see the stuff I’ve been dreaming of since childhood. Still, I’m certainly a bit nervous.

    All the best to you and your boy.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Tim! You should be absolutely fine in Egypt (most people are) — and the sites are definitely worth the associated hard work.

  13. Grace says:

    Hi Theodora,

    Thanks for the heads up in Egypt. I’ve been wanting to sojourn there on December of this year 2013 partly for business purposes, how bad do you think it’s going to be by then, otherwise will there be an abatement of the havoc?
    I’m looking into travelling with gadvedtures (http://www.gadventures.com/trips/egypt/?ref=finder) as first time solo female traveler i figured it’ll be safer to travel with a group. I’ve been meaning to interview some locals there specifically women, do you think it’ll be intricate?

    Regards,
    Grace

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Grace, I think Egypt is one place where a group tour’s worth doing for a first-time solo female traveller — it’s not so much about safety, per se, as about having a pleasant experience.

      What I’m not sure about, though, is how you’re going to manage meeting and interviewing local women while on a group tour, where there’s often a fairly packed schedule. I could get you the contact details of a female tour guide who’s based in Cairo if you’d like — she’s apparently very good. And you might find travelling with her as your guide will mean you have both the ability to travel with the safety of a group and the ability to customise your own schedule so that you can get the interviews that you want.

      Theodora

  14. Mona says:

    Theodora,i fully agree with you but i have to say the following
    even before the revolution we had a long history with terrorism of course you still remember for instance
    1- luxor massacre 17 Nov 1997
    2- Giz massacre 18 April 1996
    but after the revolution things have changed
    killing comes after the robbery and rape.
    I’m sorry to say that but this is the truth you can just set back, relax and watch the videos.

    • Theodora says:

      Of course that’s correct, that you did have Islamist killings prior to the revolution. But you also had a highly controlled state. Not saying that was a good thing in the slightest, but it did keep the lid on north Sinai and on street violence… Though of course Egyptian women are much more likely to experience sexual violence than foreigners visiting Egypt.

      • Jamal says:

        Hey, be all open minded to reality. It is not radicals only! Tourists as well as locals are being kidnaped to sell their organs !

  15. […] How Safe is Egypt After the Revolution? on Travels With A Nine Year Old: Very well detailed analysis on how safe or unsafe Egypt is right now. […]

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