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.
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.