“Only one dollar, sir, only one dollar” the 12-year old boy yelled while trying to keep up with me. He was waving a long, unfolded string of post cards in front of my face, hoping I would at least make eye contact. “One dollar, very cheap, sir, only one dollar” he repeated. There are dozens of young boys like him near the famous Egyptian monuments trying to sell their wares to the few tourists visiting this year. I didn’t buy his post cards but I sensed desperation in his voice, an urgency I perceived all over Egypt this year and do not remember from my last visit 4 years ago. The aggressiveness of souvenir vendors in Egypt is only one indication that things are not well in the country of pharaohs. Bruised and beaten up by political turmoil and serious security concerns, Egypt is left with a tourism industry in shambles.
During my visit to Alexandria, just before the democratic elections of 2012, the mood among the Egyptian people was one of hope and excitement. The Arab Spring had just brought an end to the oppressive 30-year long military regime of Hosni Mubarak and ushered in, what many expected to be an era of freedom and democracy. The western world cheered the country on and pledged to accept and support whatever leader the Egyptian people would choose. As it turned out, the new government of choice was the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood offered the people an attractive vision of authenticity, nationalism and religious reform. Its leader, Mohamed Morsi, became the face of modern Egypt.
However, Morsi’s reign did not last long. Only one year after the elections, Morsi gave himself sweeping political powers through presidential decrees. Civil unrest and large demonstrations followed and the country, once again, was in crisis. The military, claiming to be acting on behalf of the civic uprising, stepped in and arrested Morsi, took over the governmental reins and installed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president. Shortly after, in what was largely seen as a rigged election, the military declared el-Sisi the winner with 96.9% of the popular vote…so much for democracy.
Now, el-Sisi is ruling Egypt with an iron fist, more harshly than Mubarak. In an attempt to completely destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, el-Sisi continues to hunt down its leaders, execute them by the hundreds and imprison the organization’s members by the thousands. His preoccupation with the Brotherhood, which he now labels as a terror organization, has caused him to neglect the welfare of the Egyptian people. By any measure, the country is now worse off than before the revolution of 2011. More than a quarter of the country’s population live in poverty, economic growth is negligible, the country’s cash reserves are dangerously low, unemployment is near 14% (youth unemployment is 40%), the education and health care systems are deteriorating and the government is still struggling to provide clean drinking water for its people.
The tourism industry also has taken a hit. In 2011, more than 1 million tourists came to Egypt each month. They roamed through millennia-old temples, snorkeled in the Red Sea, took river cruises on the Nile, climbed the pyramids and stayed in fancy hotels. The year 2016 is on track to bringing less than half the tourists to the land of the pharaohs, causing much despair to everyone who makes a living from visiting Europeans and Americans, and those who do come, spend less.
But the decline of the tourism industry cannot be blamed on poor governance alone. Terror bombings, downed airliners and an ever-increasing threat from ISIS fighters on the Sinai Peninsula have turned the country into a “no-go zone” for foreigners. The threats perceived by would-be travelers are reinforced by travel advisories from their respective governments and the cancellations of direct flights from the UK and Russia.
To counter the tourists’ fears, the Egyptian government has beefed up security and vies strongly for European tourists to return. At every street corner and temple you can see security personnel with machine guns, prepared to confront whatever threat arises. Metal detectors are at the entrances to all national monuments. Even the 193 km (120 mi) long Suez Canal, which facilitates the passage of marine traffic from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, represents a security nightmare for Egypt. Now lined with watch towers, armed soldiers and seemingly insurmountable fences, the waterway seems to be safe. Still, ships travelling through the famous waterway can’t help but feel like sitting ducks – highly vulnerable to attacks from shores on both sides. Ships could become easy targets for Islamic extremists who wish to harm a country that has placed a Muslim organization at the top of its hit list.
Elsewhere in Egypt in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt’s tourist hotspot at the south end of the Sinai Peninsula, tourist guides and souvenir vendors are still reeling from the downing of a Russian airliner which killed 217 passengers and 7 crew members in October 2015. Investigators concluded that it was a terrorist attack. ISIS claimed responsibility for planting a bomb on the plane. Only lax and incompetent security measures at the Sharm el Sheikh Airport could have allowed a bomb to be planted on board a plane. Since the incident, the tourist flow to Sharm el-Sheikh has come to a near-standstill. Currently, 200 of the area’s 418 hotels have closed down, the 4-lane highways are bare of traffic, the waterfront resembles a ghost town and souvenir vendors earn 1/3 of their usual income.
In response to the downed aircraft, the government has increased security in Sharm el Sheikh. Cruise ship passengers are now closely scrutinized before they are allowed to re-board their ship. My wife Kit and I experienced the new safety measures first hand. As we approach the terminal in port, we are asked to leave the bus and walk through a metal detector. Strangely enough, none of the security personnel bother to check our cameras and bags or those of our fellow passengers - all by-pass the x-ray machine without scrutiny.
After everything Egypt has been through and should have learned during these troubled times, one would presume that extra care would be taken to ensure the safety of tourists and citizens alike. As I look around and see dozens of soldiers and police stand smoking and chatting in the corner of the terminal while bags are allowed to pass through security without being checked, I can understand why western visitors continue to mistrust Egypt, a country that wants so badly to revive its suffering tourist industry.