Political turmoil overran Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year, bringing with it the usual sensationalist images of tourists boarding any plane they could get to take them to ‘safety.’ But how dangerous was the situation for us tourists? There have been no reported attacks on tourists to date and Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and Luxor remained open. Even the Pyramids of Giza, situated on the outskirts of Cairo, reopened during the unrest, bringing with it only a slow trickle of visitors.
Tourism is vital to Egypt. It brings in hard currency estimated at $14.7 billion annually, accounting for 11 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product and providing 10 percent of its jobs. This is in a country with 34% unemployment for men under 25. These kind of numbers alongside the poor education, infrastructure, bureaucratic inertia (an Egyptian civil servant was once found to do an estimated 11 minutes work a day!) and entrenched corruption fed the previously internalized frustration that exploded after Tunisia’s revolution a month earlier. The protests were never directed towards Europe or its populace. Egyptians are smart enough not to bite the hand that feeds them.
Yet despite the protests being mostly peaceful and almost completely confined to central Cairo and the second city Alexandria, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt’s most populare tourist destination, was like a ghost town. Travel up the coast to Taba on the Egyptian-Israeli border and you would see a repetitive stream of abandoned hotels, a consequence of the last Gaza uprising. An estimated 35,000 German tourists left despite Sharm being a gated resort. Only the scuba divers remained, possibly a hardier bunch.
As a student interested in social anthropology and the notion of social capital, the political forces on show and the solidarity in these protesting groups were even more impressive when witnessed first-hand. They were often simply asking for what was promised to them or what we take for granted and, as a result,the protests I have witnessed were engaging and very interesting. The chance to watch the events evolve around you is incredible, as I discovered during the student protests in Mexico City and the struggle between police and the army in La Paz, Bolivia.
So, rather than fleeing when the going gets interesting, stay and witness – but don’t just waste your time in your hotel room. Stick it out, eat at a local cafe and ask locals for information. Seeing the sights without the usual throngs is better too and on a more cynical side, it can also be cheaper straight after a crisis. Experiencing a country in the throes of revolution can be an unforgettable experience and the Egyptian people really do need your support. Try to get around as much as possible. Hail a camel maybe. Hold your nose though. They stink.