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Egypt, Tourism and All Those Police

April 7th, 2019 · 1 Comment · Egypt, tourism, Travel

“Police state” is a strong term. It can have multiple meanings, and shades of threat/protections. It may not always be easy to identify a police state, but perhaps one simple iteration goes like this:

A state where armed governmental authorities seem … everywhere.

One such state is the one we spent two weeks in, recently, Egypt.

We dutifully sailed up the Nile River from Luxor to Aswan, disembarking day after day to revel in all things “ancient Egypt”, but we also spent two weekends in a beach hotel in Hurghada.

Those events were linked by a pair of six-hour bus rides from the Red Sea to the Nile and back, through the vaguely threatening emptiness of desert mountains.


Almost as unforgettable as the Karnak temples and the Valley of the Kings was the visibility of the police, or army, or whatever organizations all those guys with guns belong to.

We passed through dozens and dozens of checkpoints, in cities and in the desert, where uniformed men sat with body armor and sometimes manned armored vehicles — with heavy machine guns on the roof and the young men assigned to fire them. And with firing positions inside elevated cement block houses reached by ladder.

We also routinely went through metal detectors when arriving at the boat and whenever reaching a tourism venue.

After a time, we wondered who needed all that protection. The tourists? The locals? The government? All of the above? Whatever the threat, it clearly has led to a muscular response.

It was in the small town of Dendera, north of Luxor, that the police presence became even more obvious.

The tourists who were happy to pay an extra fee to see the Dendera Temples, were the only tourists allowed off our boat, and they were led to the temples by police vehicles, blaring a siren ahead of three or four tourist buses, and followed by more police.

It was the first and only police escort accorded to anyone from our ship in seven days. One of the Britons who was among the buses said, upon return: “With the siren and all the police, I felt like the Queen!”

Meanwhile, those of us still on the boat could watch a half-dozen armed men sitting or standing (see photo, above) around a table in a shady spot near our boat’s gangway. A close watcher could see single armed men among the trees to our left and right. One uniformed man with a cup in one hand and automatic weapon in the other, got up from the main group and walked along the river bank. Another came from the same direction, after the tourists were safely back on board, carrying his bullet-resistant vest.

One of the tourists asked about the police escort. “There are separatists in this area,” was the answer given, and the audience was left to consider who those “separatists” might be.

Tourism often is a target in Egypt, which seems to have been hit with terror attacks just often enough over the past three decades to pose an ongoing threat to the industry, thought to employ 12 percent of the country’s workforce and a source of 11 percent of the Egyptian economy.

The government of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a military man elected as Egypt’s president, seems very eager to keep tourists safe, which certainly is an aid to tourism. Major incidents, like the downing of a Russian-owned Metrojet near the Sinai resort of Sharm Al-Sheikh in 2015 killed all 224 people aboard, and seriously damaged tourism in the area.

(Some of the foreign tourists apparently migrated to Hurghada, which seems to have replaced Sharm as the preferred destination for Russians and Germans seeking some sun, even though Hurghada has been targeted twice since early 2016, with nine tourists stabbed, two of them fatally.)

It would be pretty to think of all that security is meant to keep tourists out of harm’s way, but it may well contain a component of political control between government and Egyptian people.

One of the Egyptians we talked to at some length said public criticism of the government and “our dear president” could land him in jail overnight. “You would not see me for a long time,” he said. He then quoted statistics he said indicated the number of prisons in Egypt have doubled in recent years, since the 2013 ouster of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood by the military.

Oh, and on the way out of the country, via Hurghada’s sprawling airport, we went through as many levels of security as we have seen anywhere, including three trips through magnetometers.

So, Egypt. Apparently, the security forces are hiring, because uniformed men can be seen everywhere. That ought to be good for tourists. Shouldn’t it?



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