I’ve been in Egypt for more than a month now, and many people asked me to update them with first hand news about the situation here, especially concerning travel safety and political (in)stability.
I left Egypt around 7 months ago, and came back on April, to find some differences, both good and bad.
Honestly I don’t even know where to start, but I will try and give you an idea of the state of things, and how this can possibly affect your travels.
1- Cairo and the political situation
We all know what’s going on in Egypt. After the 2011 Revolution, there has been a period of total uncertainty without a government, and then ‘finally’ last year President Morsi was elected. So in a way, there is more stability, but not really. Protests still take place very often, there is a huge and very active opposition (which is good) and I have seen some really weird demonstrations going on on each side, such as a group of policemen asking to be able to grow a long beard, generally not allowed to military people all over the world.
Unfortunately, after the election of President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood is now more powerful than ever, and religious freaks are coming up with the weirdest ideas. In a way, the MB is both very powerful and very weak at the moment, because they are showing their real crazy nature and many people are now taking a distance from them. Which is good.
That said, either way this doesn’t really affect the traveler, as it didn’t affect me at all – just stay away from Downtown or the Presidential Palace in the weekends and you will be fine. Yesterday night I forgot it was Friday (holiday, and usually the protests day) and rode a cab to Downtown, and had to take a diversion to avoid a protest, but honestly I didn’t even see it.
And basically everywhere else in Egypt the touristic life continues normally.
I would say tours are super safe. The paragraph above was about living in Cairo, which is not something that the first time visitor usually does.
So if you are planning a Nile cruise or a stay on the Red Sea, no worries, just book your trip and enjoy!
Concerning the desert, make sure you are with a tour operator and don’t just go on your own. Going to the desert on your own is never a good idea, plus now I would feel safe only going with an authorized tour and to authorized camp sites, that have some kind of surveillance, even just the Bedouins that take care of it and will watch the camp while you sleep.
This has little to do with the current situation: would you go to the desert on your own anyway?
3- The Sinai
This is the most controversial part.
Traveling across the Sinai is not recommended at the moment. Basically each and every embassy issued warnings about this area of Egypt, advising the travelers not to go unless in case of real necessity.
If you are flying to places like Sharm el Sheikh or going to Dahab from there, then no problem.
Crossing the Sinai peninsula, as in going from Cairo to Sharm el Sheikh, is not the smartest thing you can do at the moment: there have been quite a few kidnappings lately, and they keep happening.
BUT this doesn’t mean that the area is totally unsafe – we have a public holiday these days in Egypt and most of my friends traveled to the Sinai, and absolutely nothing happened to them.
To sum up:
- I would still cross the Sinai, but I would feel more comfortable on a public bus than on a touristic bus. Public buses are not fancy though, just so that you know!
- If I had to go on my own or with friends, I would probably take the risk, but not if I had kids with me. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for other people.
- There are other, very nice alternatives to the Sinai if you want to go to the sea from Cairo: Ein Sokhna (not even 2 hours from Cairo), the North Coast aka “Sahel” (about 2 hours from Cairo, depending where on the North Coast you are going), Hurgada (6 hours drive from Cairo), Marsa Alam (12 hours drive or a short flight from Cairo), and many, many more places that won’t make you miss Sharm el Sheikh at all. As for Dahab, well this is another story… Dahab is Dahab!
- The safest way to reach the Sinai at the moment is flying. Domestic flights from Cairo/Luxor etc to Sharm el Sheikh are usually very affordable. Of course you can also fly to Marsa Alam, nothing to do with the Sinai, but far enough to consider flying there!
4- Sexual Harassment (women only)
This is another big, sensitive topic that is all around the news in Egypt and abroad these days. Unfortunately sexual harassment, aka SH, is there and is very annoying.But there are some things you have to know about it:
- You won’t find this outside of the main cities (Cairo, Alexandria, etc) so if you are going to the desert or on a Nile cruise, you may not even notice the phenomena.
- If you are visiting Egypt with a tour operator, most probably you won’t come across anything like this, because basically you won’t even step foot on a real street.
- Appropriate clothing is better if you walk on the city streets (try not to wear short skirts or shorts, and don’t show your cleavage or belly. Also, try and avoid tight and/or transparent clothes). When you are in clubs, western restaurants and cafes, you can wear pretty much whatever you want including short dresses and such. But you won’t feel comfortable doing so on the streets, plus you will get so many comments, that you will regret it!
- I have to admit that walking with a man on your side does make a difference.
- Blondes and redheads, I am sorry but you’re going to get a lot more comments and harassment than the other women… Sorry about that. That said, even women with niqabs are harassed, so it depends on clothes only to a certain extent.
- Avoid demonstrations and big, chaotic crowds such as in Tahrir Square on Fridays. I heard too many horror stories about mass rapes, and I even if I did go to the square before, nowadays I wouldn’t risk it. So don’t be silly. You can take cool pics of yourself somewhere else without risks… Right?
- Last time I came to Cairo (Jul to Oct 2012) I experienced some really bad harassment, including men following me (creepy) and others touching me in private areas. You don’t want to have the same experience. This time, it hasn’t happened to me at all, but I wouldn’t say the problem is solved… I have to admit I changed my lifestyle a lot in order to avoid this kind of situation: I don’t ride the metro anymore, I don’t walk on the street alone except in very few selected areas, I am very careful in whatever I do, and I just don’t hang out in areas where I used to live before, and where I had the worst experiences: it breaks my heart, but Downtown is not the best place for a girl so I am now living in a more “upscale” area even if I never thought I would end up doing so.
Of course, all this affected my budget in a dramatic way. To give you an example, yesterday I spent 70 Egyptian Pounds (approx. 10 USD) on taxis, when I would have spent 2 Egyptian Pounds (approx. 0,15 USD) if I rode the metro like I used to do last year.
I know that if I decide to move here I won’t be able to keep up with such an expensive lifestyle, so I will have to find a way in between. But for now, since I wanted to stay away from any possible problem, I am playing the rich kid, and I succeeded, because I never had any episode of harassment so far.
5- The atmosphere and general mood
So far, I hope you realized there is no real threat in traveling to Egypt. If you are coming for the first time, and you are with a tour and such, you won’t notice what I am about to say, but if like me you’ve spent some time living here, then this could be the most disappointing aspect.
Sitting with my ‘Revolutionary’ friends in the cafes of Downtown, I can’t help but notice a complete disillusionment. The will to continue the Revolution, and to respect the memory of the 1000+ martyrs that were killed in the last 2 years, are still there. But people are tired and disappointed.
The saddest thing is that those who did the Revolution are now ‘bullied’ by the ones who miss the old regime, and this is horrible.
The area where I used to live, Mounira, is where all the ministries and governmental buildings are located. Now, they built concrete walls to block the main streets from protesters, and there is a heavy presence of police. Would I live there again? Probably not. Why? Because when I saw the situation, I felt like they took away the spirit of this neighborhood and made it a very sad place.
The same goes with Korba, a beautiful area in the neighborhood of Heliopolis – being the Presidential Palace located here, you can also find a concrete wall close by, and demonstrations taking place on weekends. Last Friday I visited a friend in Heliopolis, and while we were chilling on his rooftop, we could hear gunshots, screams and ambulances not far from us. Again: super safe if you are not in THAT street at THAT time, but atmosphere-wise: not nice.
Last but not least, it has to be said that before the Revolution it was very safe to do basically anything, from walking in the streets at night, to traveling anywhere, etc. Now, unfortunately the first cases of robbing and other kinds of criminality are arising. This is something we are used to in the Western world, but not here. So it’s a bit sad for the locals to be worried about their belongings, when they never needed to do so until a short time ago.
How does this affect you? Well, keep an eye on your belongings. But this goes with any place in the world. The only real problem is if you want to travel long distances by car, you should avoid doing so after sunset, and avoid stopping on the way as much as possible. Unfortunately apart from the kidnappings, there are many cases of robbing and car theft, even pretty violent sometimes. So take care.
6- Hustle, bustle and the usual hassle
This has nothing to do with the Revolution’s offspring, but I think it’s worth mentioning that if you have never been to the Middle East, Egypt is not the easiest place to come as an independent traveler. Why? Because transportation is chaotic, tourists get ripped off all the time, and the vendors at touristic areas (read: Pyramids) can be really, really annoying. I know Egyptian people who swear they will never go to the Pyramids again because of this.
The typical scenario is this: you want to go to the Pyramids on your own, so you decide to ride the metro until the “Giza” metro station. Then when you get off, you will still have a long way to the Pyramids! Instantly, you will be surrounded by people offering taxi rides “for free” (yeah right) so you will have to walk and say “la2a shukran” (no thanks) until you are far enough to get a regular cab on a street.
Once in the surroundings of the Pyramids, people will start literally slamming on your cab’s doors and windows telling you “it’s forbidden to drive all the way to the entrance” (not true, they just want you to “follow them”) but the taxi driver shall keep going.
Once by the ticket offices, you will be offered “cheaper tickets” and all sorts of scams. Just keep ignoring everyone.
Once inside the Pyramids area, you will be offered multiple camel/horseback rides, but I wouldn’t dare. Have you ever heard of the “50 pounds camel ride that turned into 200 to get off the camel or be left in the desert”? Yeah.
Other than that, you always have to pay attention that the meter on taxis is on, otherwise you don’t know how much money you will be asked for that ride. And when you are offered things in the streets of Downtown, like perfumes, papyrus or simply “help”, stay on the safe side and say no. If you need anything you can always ask the staff at the hostel/hotel and they will be able to suggest where to go and find what you need.
I know this sounds pretty obvious to the experienced traveler, but since I get many questions about what I suggest for first time visitors, and especially female travelers, I feel like I need to be clear that it’s not that easy to move around Cairo on your own. So I suggest you to either find contacts here (you can ask me for this, no problem) so that someone will take care of you, or go with a tour operator if it’s your first time (and you can ask me about this too. Will be happy to help!).
I hope this was clear! Please if you have more specific questions, leave me a comment and I will find you the answer. Or if you want to add something, you’re welcome to do so! :)