food / travel

Tourism Dreams Can't Make Egypt's Problems Disappear

Two boys run in front of the great sphinx of Giza
Two boys run in front of the great sphinx of Giza
Isabel Esterman

CAIRO — The desperation that causes such aggressive tactics is understandable. Nowadays, Egypt is in the headlines more for sporadic bombings, rowdy demonstrations and security crackdowns than for its wealth of tourist attractions.

Unsurprisingly, tourist arrivals have tumbled, from a peak of around 14 million in 2010, to just 9.5 million last year, most of whom did not venture beyond the controlled environment of the Red Sea resorts.

Tourism minister Hisham Zaazou recently told reporters that 2013 was the worst year for the industry in modern history. For the roughly 10 percent of Egyptians whose jobs depend directly or indirectly on tourism, the decline has been devastating.

Given everything that's going on, who would possibly come to visit Egypt, of all possible places in the world, at all possible times?

My parents, it turns out.

During their weeklong stay earlier this month, I had a rather special opportunity to observe and discuss the experience of two Americans on their first visit to Egypt during this unsettled and unsettling time.

Granted, my parents have personal reasons for a trip to Egypt that most tourists lack: me, and my in-laws, most of whom they had not previously met in person. But they also have some of the same reasons most visitors have: an interest in Egypt’s art and antiquities as well as the desire to see new things and enjoy some warm weather.

Bargain prices

Traveling to Egypt right now is also an astoundingly good deal. All-in, my parents’ roundtrip tickets from New York to Cairo were a bargain at $735 each. Hotel and cruise prices have been slashed as well, and the low numbers of tourists means that we could at times wander Egypt’s monuments almost on our own, with time and quiet for contemplation and reflection.

I should start off, as I’m sure they would wish, by emphasizing that my parents had a fabulous time (or at least were polite enough to put on a convincing show of it). The temples and tombs we visited were, to quote my father, “awesome,” in the old-school, wonder-and-astonishment sense of the word.

The weather was pleasingly balmy. My in-laws amply lived up to Egyptians’ reputation for hospitality, as did the guides, drivers and waiters, shopkeepers and temple attendants we encountered on our travels, as well as helpful strangers like the English teacher-cum-crossing guard who stopped traffic outside of the Egyptian Museum so that my clearly terrified parents could cross Meret Basha Street unharmed. (Thank you, kind sir!)

Even the mad bedlam of Cairo roads, what my mother describes as “traffic and insane driving conditions,” was a source of fascination, though my mother did confess to spending a lot of time worrying about pedestrians.

It’ll take time

With these disclaimers out of the way, however, the experience that week has also made it clear to me that Egypt has a long way to go before it is likely to see tourist arrivals pick up again.

The weeks preceding my parents’ visit were marred by violence. The trip had been discussed for months, but we got down to planning the details just as things got really crazy. On January 24, four bombs went off in Cairo, one just blocks away from my apartment. The next day saw the third anniversary of the revolution grimly commemorated with street clashes that led to tens of deaths. That was also the day my parents booked their tickets.

Then, on February 16, a tourist bus was bombed in Taba, killing three Korean tourists and their driver. Then, a Twitter account that claimed to represent the group behind the Taba bombing — quickly identified as spurious — threatened that any foreigners in Egypt would be in danger after February 20. My parents were scheduled to arrive on February 27.

To my surprise, my parents seemed mostly unfazed by the news, but that wasn’t the case for their friends in the United States. “People were concerned, really concerned. People said: "is it safe?’” recalled my father. “People just chimed in with warnings and surprise,” added my mother.

“Are you supporting the regime by coming to Egypt now?”

Even without the question of personal safety, many of my parents’ acquaintances questioned the ethics of coming to Egypt at this time. “Everybody assumes that it's not a democracy, and that it's being taken over by military thuggery,” said my father.

“There's a question of ‘Are you supporting the regime by coming to Egypt right now?’ And I don't want to be supporting the regime.”

Another factor weighing on their minds was the xenophobic, anti-American propaganda that has been rampant in pro-regime media since June 30 — for example, the televised speculation by prominent journalist Mostafa Bakry that an American plot to assassinate Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would lead Egyptians to rise up and kill Americans in the streets.

“It's not comfortable to feel that the government is trying to persuade people to view me as the enemy,” says my father. As the parents of a foreign journalist working in Egypt, they are also naturally concerned with the security crackdown on foreign media.

“If it weren't for you, I wouldn't go to Egypt with the current regime. It's like endorsing what's going on, and I don't want to support it,” my father told me.

But, proving that some people are still crazy enough to come here, or at least that parental love overwhelms logic and scruples, they proceeded with the trip.

Military, military everywhere

Along with traffic, one of the things that struck them the most upon arrival was the heavy militarization of the country, from tanks and barbed wire on the streets of Cairo to armed soldiers outside tourist attractions. “For us, as Americans, it's a shock to see army presence on the streets. We're used to police, but not to that,” says my mother. “I didn't feel safe with them there, and I didn't feel unsafe.”

More unnerving, said my father, were the plain-clothed police wielding heavy weaponry. “There’s a constant presence of all these guys with submachine guns, who appear out of nowhere and you don't know who's in charge,” he said. With tiny numbers of foreign tourists and huge numbers of police and soldiers, my father said he often felt simply outnumbered.

The desperation of many people in the tourist industry was also clear, and often distressing. We passed countless riverboats sitting idle, huge coach parking lots with just a tiny flow of mini-buses, and rows of empty carriages with gaunt horses and hollow-eyed drivers. Although there seemed to be a healthy flow of local tourists, we saw few foreign visitors at most of the sites we visited, and those who were there appeared to be quickly shepherded through by phalanxes of guides.

Predictably, despite the heavy security presence, we were absolutely swarmed by vendors nearly everywhere we went. “Instead of the anticipation of approaching some place with great historical importance, you feel like you're running the gauntlet. You're never relaxed.” said my father.

“Many times I felt like the whole thing is like killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” added my mother.

Desperation for sales

Like many tourists, she was more than prepared to help out the local economy by spending money on souvenirs, but found that the overwhelming onslaught of vendors actually prevented her from buying much of anything — getting rushed prompts a fear response, not the feelings of ease and generosity that prompt people to spend freely, she said. “Buying things just opens you up to more harassment,” added my father.

Both of my parents stress, though, that what they felt was mostly sadness for the vendors, rather than irritation. “It just seems like they need more guidance, more advocates, so they can sell more, in a way that encourages tourists to buy things,” my mother said. Why, she asked, isn’t there government-sponsored market research to see what tourists actually want to buy, or attempts at creating some kind of organized system where tourists can browse calmly and spend more, and vendors don’t have to fight for position?

“I feel, why is this country, with even its wealth of tourist attractions, so shabbily run?” said my father. “There's a tremendous amount of wealth somewhere — probably with the army — and then there are all these people struggling and living pretty miserable lives.”

Although they profess to being glad to have come for a rare family visit to see my life and my apartment and meet my relatives here, my parents demurred when asked if they would recommend such a trip to others. “I don't want to be seen as indifferent to all the slaughter and turmoil and corruption,” said my father.

I can't claim that my parents are representative of all foreign tourists. But I think they may be representative of the type of well-informed and well-traveled people who might take sensational headlines with a grain of salt and consider coming to what is clearly an unstable country.

If so, it suggests that if Egypt's government really wants to revitalize its tourist industry, it needs more than just commercials and PR campaigns trying to urge tourists the country is safe. Instead, it should perhaps tamp down the xenophobic rhetoric, work to protect its most vulnerable citizens, and clean up its human rights record.

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

➡️


"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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