News / Economy

Egypt Tourism Workers Pine for Stability, Security

Tourists at the beach of the Red Sea tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, Feb. 21, 2011.
Tourists at the beach of the Red Sea tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, Feb. 21, 2011.
At a cafe in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Mohamed was lamenting to a foreign journalist how Egypt's 2011 uprising had hurt his business because law and order had broken down.

The reporter never got to ask the tour guide whether he thought things would get better now the army is back in charge; before Mohamed had finished speaking, two plainclothes policemen detained the Reuters correspondent, ending their conversation.

Foreign journalists may chafe at such unwelcome attention, but millions of Egyptians have shrugged or cheered the renewed zeal of security services since the army ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last month, a dramatic milestone in two and a half years of political upheaval.

It may seem an irony that Egyptians should welcome the re-emergence of a police state whose reputation for brutality and venality drove them to revolution. But in Sharm el-Sheik the logic is obvious to those whose living depends on promising a sunny, and safe, holiday in an area with a history of violence.

Egypt's generals have used popular demands for security to justify a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in which more than 1,000 people have died since they toppled President Mohamed Morsi on July 3. The Islamists mismanaged the country, they say, and failed to contain militants, especially in the Sinai desert.

In Sharm el-Sheik, in the south of the Sinai peninsula, the army's argument resonates with the guides, shopkeepers and waiters of an industry that, nationwide, used to account for one in eight jobs in Egypt. For all the timeless appeal of pyramids and beach resorts, that employment depends too on the country being perceived as a safe, open place to visit.

“The Brotherhood weren't interested in security. They were interested in getting their organization into political positions. That's it. They didn't care about tourism,” said Ibrahim Kandil, a 27-year-old watch-seller. “The situation was better before; there used to be security,” he added.

Like many other local vendors, Kandil has put up a poster of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military chief, at his store.

The heavy presence of security forces in the resort town - built on land Israel returned to Egypt after they signed a U.S.-brokered peace treaty in 1979 - is partly a response to the upsurge of violence in northern Sinai since Morsi's overthrow.

Militant Islamist groups have found safe haven in the peninsula's rugged interior and have used it to launch attacks on Egyptian army and police and launch rockets at Israel.

Tourism workers play down the threat of violence spreading south, but Islamist militants set off bombs in the town as recently as 2005. A similar attack could further devastate tourism, one of Egypt's main sources of foreign currency.

With that in mind, many workers in the industry now openly pine for the days of Hosni Mubarak, an autocrat who ruled for three decades until the 2011 uprising unseated him.

Like many in the town, watch-seller Kandil seemed unfazed by the deaths of hundreds of his compatriots when security forces smashed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo this month.

“There were weapons at the sit-in. They were attacking the police, and so the police had to defend themselves,” he said, flipping through Al Masry Al Youm, a widely read newspaper that has reviled the Brotherhood in recent coverage.

The government has framed the deaths as the inevitable consequence of fighting a group it says resorted to terrorism after its political aims were frustrated.

The Brotherhood says a Mubarak-era establishment is simply trying to justify its crackdown as it restores itself to power.

Tidy Sanctuary

Sharm el-Sheik makes for a surreal contrast to the urban grit, poverty and social conservatism of the cities of the Nile valley, where most of Egypt's 85 million people live.

It is a sanctuary of casinos, nightclubs, scuba diving schools, luxury hotels and English-style pubs set amid immaculate avenues, manicured lawns, date palms, purple flowers and Sinai's distant mountains.

Tanned and tattooed Europeans wade into crystal blue waters in tight shorts or bikinis, and drink beer on the streets. At night, dance music thuds from beachside bars. It is a lifestyle far from that embraced by leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood - though the movement's ministers insisted they would not curb it.

For many, Sharm el-Sheik became an emblem of the late Mubarak era: the aging autocrat spent more and more time at his villa here near the end of his reign - a sign, critics said, of his growing isolation from a country straining under his rule.

It also symbolized the economic solutions his government offered its swiftly growing population. The town and other resorts along the desert Red Sea coast gave jobs to young men trying to escape dead-end lives on the distant Nile, where corruption and mismanagement hollowed out industry and farming.

The jobs were never quite enough, but for many like Kandil, who travels between Sharm el-Sheik and his family home in the teeming Delta town of Tanta, Brotherhood rule represented the contraction of even those slim opportunities.

Sensing that the Islamists were unwilling or unable to represent their immediate economic interests - security, stability and a spirit of cosmopolitan tolerance - many turned to the army as the best alternative.

“The Brotherhood was the reason for all of this. They didn't know how to manage the country,” Kandil said. He pointed to the 30-percent discount his store was offering to try to sell watches, advertised in English, Italian and Russian.

His co-worker, Mohamed Bedawy, agreed. He recalled that Morsi appointed as governor of Luxor a member of Gamaa Islamiya, a former militant group that was behind an attack that killed 58 tourists in the province's capital just 16 years ago.

“Is that reasonable?” Bedawy said. “Of course that can't happen.”

Safe and Stable

The tourist industry will be one barometer of whether authorities are able to convince foreigners Egypt is safe and stable enough to visit after they overthrew the country's first freely elected president and began hunting down his supporters.

So far, Sinai has been struck hard. While Sharm el-Sheik is located in the quiet southern part of the peninsula, the northern regions near Israel and the Gaza Strip have been hit by a string of attacks on army and police by Islamist gunmen.

Workers in Sharm el-Sheik say they see little chance of the militancy spreading south, but the town is still haunted by the memory of the 2005 bombing that killed scores of people.

Like many other tourism workers, Mohamed Galal, a 22-year-old from the Delta town of Munifiya wearing sunglasses and shorts, said he expected the authorities would be able to handle any security threats, and that business would soon improve.

“Everything will be all right now, because the police have caught all the big bosses of the Muslim Brotherhood,” the cafe manager said as Russians and Britons in swimsuits and tank tops strolled past. “They were frightening people.”

Asked whether he thought it would have been better if the 2011 uprising had never happened, Galal thought for a moment and said the revolt had, overall, been a good thing: “It brought the people together,” he said. “But, you know, the work... “

Galal could not finish his thought. Another police officer turned up, interrupting him, and marched the Reuters journalist to a local police station for his second detention in two hours. As before, there was no explanation.

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