Nearly two years after the revolution, between the referendum and the anniversary, we experienced Egypt as a safe and pleasant place to travel.
„And you are still determined to go to Egypt?,” some of our friends inquired when we were preparing for our 4-week research trip. “Isn't it dangerous with all these political tensions?” Even our editor told us that she would rather see us not going to Egypt. Just on the weekend we departed for Hurghada, the first round of the referendum about the new constitution was scheduled to take place. German media even talked of a “realistic possibility of civil war” in Egypt. Naturally our friends and relatives were concerned.
Yet (as we had expected) we did not experience any threatening situation during our whole stay – mostly in Upper Egypt but also in Middle Egypt, Cairo and Alexandria. Neither did we see any political demonstrations, except for a group of students in the Cairo subway who were spraying and pasting announcements for events on the anniversary of the revolution. Tahrir Square itself, where many of the demonstrations have been taking place, was heavily fenced off on all sides. It did have an eerie feel as the usually busy crossroads was almost empty when we were there, but pedestrians could still walk over the square. By the anniversary itself, we had already left Egypt.
On the other hand we met a lot of Egyptians who where quite eager to discuss political matters with us. Previously, under the Mubarak regime, we had never talked about social welfare or elections in public busses. Talking about political topics is a first step – obviously it is not sufficient for a working democracy. In the last elections apparently many Egyptians didn’t really grasp the concept of democracy and elections. Even of those who went to vote, many did not even have the most basic information about the parties on the ballot. We heard of people who mixed up the progressive „Freedom Party“ with the Islamist „Freedom and Justice Party“, thus ending up as involuntary supporters of the Muslim Brothers.
„Yes, we always play this kind of music, but only upstairs,“ the cashier of the Brazilian Coffee Stores in Alexandria shrugs when we ask about their new in-shop music style: Islamic chants. Over the next days we notice more of the monotonous a cappella songs blaring from loudspeakers at juice vendors, supermarkets, bakeries and fashion stores. On the other hand quite often the shop next door will be playing Hakim or Rihanna at a similar volume. There is obviously a polarization taking place within society, at least in the North, and people tend to take clearer positions for one side or another. Not necessarily a bad sign concerning the process of democratisation, we think.
We also found a strong distinction between Lower and Upper Egypt. In areas like Luxor, Aswan and the Red Sea Coast, a high percentage of the population work in tourism. They want a certain degree of stability for the tourists to come back to Egypt, no matter who provides it. There are also more conservative and more pious people in Upper Egypt who seem to be appreciating the increased importance of Islam – but they were not the revolutionaries who overturned the Mubarak regime.
In our opinion the demonstrations and protests are quite necessary to make sure that the Mursi government does not assume ever greater power, that it will guarantee freedom of speech and press as well as free elections in the future. Hopefully, voters and candidates will be better prepared next time – but if people do want to vote for Islamist parties, that is after all their own choice.
We would appreciate it if foreign media would make a clearer distinction between terrorists and Islamists, Taliban and Muslim Brothers. Egypt is not Mali, and Muslims, for that matter, come in all shades.
In our experience the situation for tourists was quite safe and is likely to remain safe in the tourist areas of Upper Egypt. Of course it is always advisable to check the current situation before any visit.