Safety in Egypt (07/27/2006)

Safety in Egypt (July 27th, 2006)

by Jimmy Dunn

Welcome to Egypt

With everything that is going on in the Middle East, we felt once more today the need to assess safety in Egypt, even though Egypt is actually in Africa, and we wrote one story about safety last week. Nevertheless, events seem to be moving along rapidly in the Middle East, and it is fair that people might wonder about Egypt. Indeed, I have just this morning been speaking to many people in Egypt, and often actually taking on an adversarial role to those telling me that tourists remain safe. I have been a bit of a devils advocate this morning, just to make certain of my assessment. To me, if tourists were not safe in Egypt, it would be better to warn them off for a short period of time rather than to have some sort of event that would drive them away for a longer term.

In making this assessment, I have spoken to, over the last day and a half, Egyptian military officers, political officers and administrators, ex-pats living in Egypt and both Christian and Muslim Egyptians, as well as my own staff members, including people throughout different locations in Egypt, not just Cairo. Though the reason is sometimes complex, and sometimes very simple, the consensus, and it is surprisingly unanimous, is that Egypt remains safe.

Over this last decade, Egypt has, of course, suffered problems with several terrorist events, but so have many other countries. Egypt is highly reliant on tourism, a matter that they never take lightly. Indeed, at times I have wondered if they were not overly cautious, but after having experienced several problems, they have steadily and proactively increased security and security measures. However, highly reliable sources are now telling me that, because of what is going on in Israel and Lebanon, security forces have been dramatically increased even more so.

Tourists who visit Egypt are of course familiar with the Tourist Police, who remain a constant presence, as well the normal police force. They are all over the tourist areas, with the specific job of protecting tourists. However, my sources are now telling me that there has been a vast increase in secret police, not because of any specific threat, but simply as a proactive step due to the violence in Israel and Lebanon. I am told that Zamalak specifically, where many of the embassies are located, is crawling with secret police, and their job is, like the Tourist Police, to make sure that all remains safe.

That is part of the simplest explanation on safety. The second reason that Egypt remains safe is a very old explanation, and one that my readers have heard before, but which I have in fact verified in the last several days. Many Egyptians make their living from tourists. Many others are affected positively by tourism in one manner or another, having a family member earn their living in the industry, or dependent on tourism in a secondary business. It is therefore not surprising that Egyptians like tourists and, having had tourists now visit for some 3,000 years or so, they are also natural hosts. Egyptians, I have found, simply like people, and in fact, are as a whole very opposed to violence and wars. It is true that they do not like what is going on in the Middle East just now, but it has most to do with the fact that they just don't like this sort of human tragedy. Egyptians are a very kind race, who love their families and mostly seek security for them. It is also clear that they do not wish to be involved in any of the current conflicts.

Indeed, the military officers I spoke to assure me that there is absolutely no chance that Egypt will get caught up in the current fighting. Playing the devils advocate, I reminded one that nothing in life is certain, but as he pointed out, Egypt remains one of the most Western friendly countries in the region, they are bound by and intend to remain bound by the Camp David treaty, a peace accord between them and Israel, and that the Israeli Ambassador remains in Egypt.

Now, I am going to make a slight, or perhaps even a major break with tradition. We really do not talk, very purposefully, about modern politics in Egypt, but as it turns out, this too is a matter that affects safety. I just hope I do not anger everyone on every side of every fence. Egypt refers to itself as a democracy, and there are some democratic elements within the system, but in the end, President Mubarak has ruled the country for many years and is likely to rule it for many more to come. Yet, over the past several years, there has indeed been a tendency towards democratic reform. Unfortunately I suppose, with that tendency also came several terrorist attacks, as the country opened up a bit. That democratic reform movement seems to have largely disappeared now and, while I am attempting to leave opinion out of all this, President Mubarak now has a very firm hand on the country. Irregardless of how one feels about that, it does make the country safer to visit. It means that there are very few stray elements remaining that can cause much trouble. Though I know many Egyptians would support democratic reform, it does not always work in this or other regions. Thus far, Iraq appears to be a very fine example that democratic reform does not necessarily bring safety to a country. It sometimes takes a strong arm to do so. But the point is that the government of Egypt has a very tight grip on the country at this point and that is, one way or the other, beneficial to tourist security.

This assessment also applies to Americans specifically. Interestingly, and I have to say that this is no opinion, President Bush has vilified himself in the Muslim world, at least amongst its common people, but he has done that so well that he has practically segregated himself from the American people. They appear to see President Bush, the Vice President and Rice, along with a few other very public administration officials as a group of thugs, separate and apart from Americans in general. Indeed, this view is shared by many other common people throughout the world, as Americans are beginning to learn. Increasingly, I see those in the Middle East who are horrified by him, but actually do not really so much associate normal Americans with him. Really, the Egyptians have always been like this. They do not automatically associate citizens of a country with their governments. They are actually very open minded, moderate and most Egyptians who end up meeting individual Americans like them very much.

Also, one must keep in mind that even if Americans were to become targeted by some group, it would probably not be in Egypt. No event in Egypt, that I know of, and I keep up with very well, has actually ever targeted Americans in Egypt, because Americans make up only a very small fraction of the tourism trade. There are not enough of them who visit Egypt to be targeted, given the vast number of other tourists. This actually applies to Israelis. Many times there have been significant numbers of Israelis on the Eastern Sinai cost, but that is not likely to be the case at the moment.

Furthermore, many of the terrorist organizations in the world at the moment are fairly well focused on Israel. and though I am certain that there are also those who would attack Americans, the vast majority of tourists to Egypt are neither. It is simply not a good target for this, and various other reasons.

Now we may see a few demonstrations in Egypt over the coming weeks. They will never be near tourism regions, but the media will doubtless report them if they occur. Be aware that they may have nothing at all to do with what is going on in Israel and Lebanon, though they may be erroneously reported that way. Fairly abruptly, the price of gasoline, and apparently along with it many other prices, has increased some 30 percent in Egypt. Obviously, this is a difficult situation for a country that has many poor families, and an abrupt 30 percent increase in prices would worry anyone. In fact, tourists may expect to pay more for a taxi ride, and for other services, including monument fees and train fares in the near future. Keep in mind though that usually the ground part of an Egyptian tour is not the most expensive part of it. Rather, it is the airfare, which so far seems to be holding fairly steady.

But there is a safety point to this as well. Many Egyptians are not even focusing on the war in Lebanon, but their own plight at the moment. They are certainly aware of the war, but they actually seem more concerned about their own problems with prices just now.

In the final analysis, Egypt is a highly secure country, and particularly at this point in time. In fact, and I do hate to say this, but given current events, it may very well be safer than many US cities as far as terrorism is concerned, and it has always had a much lower general rate of violence than a number of popular US tourist destinations (the murder rate in Washington, DC is some 37 times greater than that of the whole country of Egypt).

Clearly, I am not taking tourist safety lightly, and during times such as these, there is always uncertainty. But there is uncertainty everywhere. Egyptians remain very friendly to tourists, as they have always been, and our assessment is that it will not be, any time soon, a terrorist target, nor will the people of Egypt be drawn into any sort of conflict that would likely not only break some very important agreements, but would also add to the hardships that the recent price increase in gasoline is already creating. Furthermore, they are in general very opposed to violence and to war specifically.