Egypt: A Revolutionary Holiday

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.

Dan Adams

3 Comments on this post.
  • Annie
    23 June 2011 at 16:24
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    Not sure it’s great to stick around in these situations, particularly when the official Foreign Office advice is often to leave while commercial flights are still operating. If the situation deteriorates and airports and embassies have to close, how are you going to get home?

  • dan
    23 June 2011 at 16:59
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    Ahh I happened to be on-line ! I should mention first that this article was written months ago and only just published.

    The FCO never said leave Egypt and almost never advises leaving unless it is an active warzone. Peaceful protests in a few squares around the country generally don’t inhibit holidays. There was no call to leave Thailand during last years Bangkok protests. Libya is of course a different matter right now. Embassies almost never close. If you are in a place where they might or don’t exist, then you are in a tough place already and I guess you chose to be there.

    What I was explaining is there is much to be learnt about countries and cultures in moments of political change, that moment when not everything is as it was. In Egypt it is far more likely to end in the offer of tea and you being told about ‘the oldest country in the world.’ Sinai where most tourists are was unaffected and people were going back to the Pyramids within days of the protests. They needed that too. Egypt is hugely reliant on us and the fact we turned a blindeye to Mubarak and the deep poverty his system allowed, makes us (esp the Brits and Americans) somewhat responsible.

    In reality we learn more about ourselves in these moments, how we react to change and crisis. Do we run or seek to understand, enlightening ourselves rather than coming home to tell stories of ignorance ? Only in East Congo have I hesitated and that was on the advice of a friend there.

    It also depends why you are in a country, whether you have kids or not and so on. Its a personal choice but the aim here was to say there was little to worry in general in these situs and very little in Egypt. Egyptians are very friendly to tourists and this revolution never once turned into an anti-West event.

    That why I advised heading outside to ask locals what’s happening rather than relying on international news who love a dramatic story especially on 24hr news and often doesn’t have people on the ground. Don’t develop a fear of the undertoad in John Irving’s World According to Garp.

    As an aside, the modern dilemma could be said when you see someone in the street upset. Do you ask if they are ok or just walk on? We in a world where we’re better connected electronically yet further apart physically. Meaning we don’t have to look people in the eye or take responsibility for ourselves, further shallowing society.

    I remember being in train station Japan running past a girl sitting on the ground crying on Valentines Day. I stopped, ran back and asked if she was ok. She mumbled something about boyfriend so I ran over to a flower stand and bought her a small flower and gave it to her before running to grab our train. Hardly a relevant story but hey, its good to share some love sometimes. 🙂

    Its sunny today!

  • dan
    23 June 2011 at 16:59
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    sorry that was a bit longer than I thought.

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