gypt and Security
January 13-31, 2002
Our first trip to Egypt in November, 1985 was definitely influenced by security, or rather the lack of it. The hijacking of the Achille Lauro Mediterranean cruise ship had recently ended with the murder of the wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer and as a result tourist bookings to the Middle East had plummeted. We had been travelling from Hong Kong and were unaware of the event until we actually arrived in Cairo. We suppose we could have cut short our visit, but it didn't even occur to us. Ironically, our visits to Cairo, Luxor, Hurgadah, Alexandria, and the Sinai were made easier by the hijacking in a couple of ways: first, there were no crowds in any of the tourist sights we visited and second, hotel keepers were anxious for our business and so ready to discount quite heavily.
When we decided to return to Egypt in January 2002, we wondered what if any would be the fallout of the events of September 11 and the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli violence. At first we were lulled into a false sense of security by our choice of entry port. We flew from London to the Sinai desert resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, which exists almost exclusively to service the foreign tourist and by virtue of its geography is somewhat isolated from what is happening west of the Suez Canal. It is therefore very atypical of Egypt as a whole. We spent a very pleasant week there enjoying the sunny weather and snorkelling in the clear blue waters of Ras Mohammed National Park. We had walked everywhere un-escorted and except for the usual guards in and around banks had seen nothing unusual in the area of security.
Our original plan had been to travel directly from Sharm to Israel, a bus ride of only a few hours, but at the last minute we decided we should take this opportunity to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of ancient Egyptian sites. With this in mind we explored travel possibilities and opted for a ferry across the Gulf of Suez to Hurgadah, another big tourist resort city. The ferry was something of a surprise. First, the price at US$40 each seemed exceptionally high for this part of the world and for just an hour's ride; second, the ferry itself was a very modern high-speed Norwegian-built ferry with very plush fixtures and fittings.
The crossing was a little bumpy but otherwise uneventful. On arrival we had a second security check but it didn’t take too long to put our luggage through the same kind of X-ray machine we are all used to at airports, and the same used prior to departure as well. We left the ferry terminal and were immediately accosted by half a dozen taxi-drivers. We picked one and got agreement on a price for the ride to the bus station — we wanted to take the overnight bus to Aswan, jumping off point for the temples of Abu Simbel. If there wasn't one we'd take whatever hotel we could find. No sooner had we started walking toward the man’s taxi, than a policeman hailed him and shouted a question in Arabic, one of the many languages that is totally incomprehensible to us. On hearing the question, the taxi-driver turned to us and asked the age-old question “Where are you from?” We said “America” and he replied to the policemen something that sounded like “Amriki”. Some further conversation followed until the driver indicated that we could continue on to his taxi. All was soon revealed when we noticed as our taxi pulled into traffic that we had a police escort vehicle.
Once at the bus station, the escort crew first used the taxi driver to find out what bus we wanted to take and then relayed this information to a young policeman and obviously told him that he was to look after us. Everything was very friendly, but it was clear that they felt we needed special protection somehow. The protection was not at all overbearing. While waiting for the bus, Gerry spent a half hour going for a walk with an English-speaking Egyptian who had tried to sell us a hotel. But not before the Egyptian had somehow assured the policeman of his bona fides. And when the bus finally arrived four hours later, the policeman was there to see that we were put safely on the bus.
We wondered why the fuss, but soon put it out of our mind as the bus whizzed us and the 30 other Egyptian passengers along brand new desert highways from the Red Sea to the Nile Valley and then upstream along the Nile to Aswan. In Aswan itself, we were let off the bus half an hour before dawn and left to wander through town looking for a hotel, which we eventually found. After a long nap to make up for lost sleep, we went down to the hotel reception to find out about visiting various sights. We were pleased to learn that for about U.S. $10 each, we could get a bus tour to both the Abu Simbel temples and the Philae Temple of Isis with a visit to the Aswan High Dam thrown in for good measure. When told we had to be ready by 4:30 a.m., we were a bit shocked by such an early departure, but even more surprised when we were told that the trip would be done in convoy.
Our first assumption was that here, finally, were the after effects of September 11. But we were wrong. The convoys have been in place, it would seem, since 1997 when terrorists shot and killed more than 50 tourists at a temple in Luxor. Tourists are no longer allowed to travel, at least in Upper Egypt (Luxor and points south), except in convoy. The convoys are often large, up to a hundred vehicles sometimes, and are always escorted by police vehicles. In addition to the convoy provision, there are now checkpoints at every major road junction that include road humps, armed policemen, and slalom-like barriers that must be negotiated slowly. Convoy vehicles are often spot-checked for number and destination of passengers and the whole affair exudes an air of seriousness. The manpower involved is enormous, sometimes ridiculously so. On the last leg of our trip, we took a bus from Cairo to Jerusalem. We were astonished to see that for a small minibus carrying three foreign tourists and four Israeli-Arabs (Palestinians), we had a driver, the driver’s assistant, three plain-clothes policemen, and an escort vehicle carrying four armed uniformed policemen. The escort vehicle changed three times during the trip, perhaps as we passed from one sector to another.
We had wanted to rent a car and driver from Aswan to take us to Luxor so that we could visit the temples at Kom Ombo and Edfu without being restricted by package tour schedules. Imagine our disappointment when we learned that even with our own car and driver, we would still be forced to travel in a convoy and therefore to follow the convoy’s schedule. Instead we opted for a different but still time-restricted solution of a two-day Nile cruise. We paid 3-star prices for a 5-star cruise and gotjust about what we paid for.
Another measure of the seriousness of the Egyptian approach to tourist security is the number of X-ray machines, body checks, and bag searches that all visitors to tourist sites are subjected to. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is typical. The street in front of the museum is blocked to vehicular traffic. As you pass through the main gates into the museum grounds, you have to have all of your bags inspected by hand. After buying your ticket and entering the museum building you have to pass your bags through an X-ray machine and you have to walk through a metal detector. Any pocket knives or scissors have to be left at the security desk to be picked up later. We have neither of us encountered such strict security measures since we were last in Israel when you were subject to bag searches even when entering the supermarket.
The aim of course is clear: to make tourists feel that they are safe and secure. In the long run, it seems to work, but we can attest that the first reaction we had to our police escort was definitely one of unease and insecurity. It is far better to see the temples of ancient Egypt in convoy than not to see them at all, but oh how one misses the freedom to go where you will, when you will. But the terrorists have not won in Egypt. On the contrary, it seems to us that especially in Cairo there is a warmth and a genuineness to the standard tourist greetings of “Where are you from?” quickly followed by “Welcome!” Jan had been very reluctant to return to Egypt given her memories of thinly veiled resentment of foreigners from her last visit. She encountered one or two this trip, but by far the vast majority of the people encountered this time seemed genuinely pleased to have us there.