Africa Travel Advice: Is it Safe to Travel to Egypt?

Cairo Skyline, Egypt
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Egypt is a beautiful country that has attracted tourists for thousands of years. It is famous for its ancient sights, its Nile River cruises and its Red Sea resorts. Unfortunately, it has also become synonymous in recent years with political turmoil and increased terrorist activity. The number of people choosing to visit Egypt on vacation fell to an all-time low in 2015, when photos emerged of iconic sights like the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx lying deserted.

However, travel agents reported a significant increase in bookings in the spring of 2018 and by the end of the year, 9 million tourists had visited Egypt in comparison with 5.4 million in 2016 – suggesting that the tourism industry is well on its way to recovery. In this article, we take a look at the security situation in Egypt in recent years and give advice on ways to stay safe if you decide to travel there in the future.

Note: Make sure to check the latest news reports and government travel warnings before booking your trip. The security situation in Egypt can change at any time.

Political Background

The country's recent unrest began in 2011 when a series of violent protests and labor strikes eventually led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. He was replaced by the Egyptian military, who ruled the country until Mohammed Morsi (a member of the Muslim Brotherhood) won the presidential election in 2012. In November 2012, clashes involving the government and anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters escalated into violent scenes in Cairo and Alexandria. In July 2013, the army stepped in and ousted President Morsi, replacing him with interim president Adly Mansour. In early 2014, a new constitution was approved, and later in the same year current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected. 

Current State of Affairs

Today, Egypt's political and economic stability is on the rise. Travel warnings from the UK and US governments focus more on the threat of terrorist activity, which has also increased in recent years. Several terrorist groups operate within Egyptian borders. The most active is Daesh-Sinai, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or ISIS. There have been several terrorist atrocities in the past five years, including attacks against government and security forces, modes of public transport, tourist venues and civil aviation. Particularly, attacks seem to target Egypt's Coptic Christian population. 

On May 26, 2017, ISIL claimed responsibility for an attack in which gunmen opened fire on a bus transporting Coptic Christians, killing 30 people. On Palm Sunday in the same year, explosions at churches in Tanta and Alexandria claimed another 44 lives; and on November 24 2017, terrorists killed over 300 civilians at prayer in a North Sinai mosque. Most recently, gunmen killed seven people on a bus filled with Coptic Christians in November 2018. However, Egyptian security forces intensified military protection in the Sinai region in February 2018 under the auspices of Operation Sinai 2018, and attacks are occurring less frequently as a result.

Travel Warnings

Due to the risk of terrorism, the travel warning from the UK government advises against all travel to the northern Sinai Peninsula. The US advisory extends that warning to the entire Sinai Peninsula with the exception of iconic Red Sea resort town Sharm el-Sheikh. Both governments also advise against non-essential travel to the Western Desert. However, there are no specific travel warnings against travel to Cairo or the Nile Delta (although it is important to be aware that despite elevated security measures in these areas, terrorist activity remains unpredictable). The country's key tourist sights (including Abu Simbel, Luxor, Philae, the Pyramids of Giza and the Red Sea coast) are still considered safe. 

General Rules for Staying Safe

While predicting a terrorist attack is impossible, there are measures that visitors can take to stay safe. Check government travel warnings regularly and make sure to heed their advice. Vigilance is important, as is following the directions of local security officials. Try to avoid crowded areas (admittedly a difficult task in Cairo), especially on religious or public holidays. Take extra care when visiting places of worship. If you're visiting Sharm el-Sheikh, weigh your options on how to get there carefully. The UK government advises against flying to the resort town after a bomb exploded on a Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg flight in 2015, killing everyone on board. However, the US government states that overland travel through the Sinai Peninsula is more dangerous. 

Petty Theft, Scams and Crime

As in most countries with a high poverty level, petty theft is common in Egypt. Take basic precautions to avoid becoming a victim – including being especially aware of your valuables in crowded areas like train stations and markets. Carry small amounts of money on your person in a money belt, keeping large bills and other valuables (including your passport) in a locked safe at your hotel. Violent crime is relatively rare even in Cairo, but it's still not a good idea to walk alone at night. Scams are common and usually include ingenious ways to get you to purchase goods you don't want, or to patron a "relative's" shop, hotel or tour company. Most of the time, these are annoying rather than dangerous. 

Health Concerns & Vaccinations

Medical facilities in Egypt's larger cities and towns are very good, but less so in rural areas. The main health issues travelers encounter are routine problems ranging from sunburn to an upset stomach. Make sure to pack a first aid kit, so that you can self-medicate if necessary. Unlike sub-Saharan countries, Egypt does not require multiple vaccinations or prophylaxis against malaria. However, it is a good idea to make sure that all of your routine vaccines are up to date. Vaccines for typhoid and hepatitis A are recommended, but not compulsory. Proof of yellow fever vaccination is a requirement of entry if you are traveling from a country with yellow fever.

Women Traveling to Egypt

Violent crime against women is rare, but unwanted attention is not. Egypt is a Muslim country and unless you are looking to offend (or draw uncomfortable stares), it's a good idea to dress conservatively. Opt for long pants, skirts and long-sleeved shirts rather than shorts, mini-skirts or tank tops. This rule is less strict in the tourist towns of the Red Sea coast, but nude sunbathing is still a no-no. On public transport, try and sit next to another woman or family. Make sure to stay in reputable hotels and don't walk around at night by yourself.

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