Egyptian boy: “Miss, miss! Welcome to Egypt! Where are you from?”
Egyptian boy: “Ooh! Chicharitou!”
I had to laugh. Walking around a UNESCO World Heritage site, the last conversation I could have guessed to have was about Chicharito. Sadly, these days such a conversation would not be so lighthearted. Instead of fútbol, the reference to Mexico would undoubtedly turn to the tourists recently executed “by mistake” last weekend by the Egyptian army. If the claim sounds dubious, it’s because it is. The tourists were part of a convoy that stopped to have lunch and were bombed from a military helicopter, while those that survived the initial attack were shot while attempting to flee.
Mexico foreign minister in Cairo to address accidental killing of 8 Mexican tourists by Egyptian security forces http://t.co/ELGkICnb0M
— The Associated Press (@AP) September 16, 2015
Our experience traveling through Egypt two weeks ago —and specifically to the usually packed Abu Simbel, located in the Nubian desert of southern Egypt, about 25 miles from the Sudanese border and almost 186 miles from our base in Aswan— makes me doubt the Egyptian government’s story. With tourism down 90 percent, we had expected visitors at most archaeological sites to be pretty sparse, but at this particular wonder, it was just our convoy: three fellow Latinos from New Jersey, my husband and I, in terms of tourists, plus the two guides, drivers, armed guards and police escort.
To get there, our Cairo-based travel agency (with a great reputation going back 60-plus years) had secured a spot in one of the convoys that traveled from Aswan to Abu Simbel that week. Traveling in such a convoy entailed permits, submitting an advanced itinerary and passenger manifesto that included individual information and copies of passports, a sign-off from the local police department, fees, two drivers and a guide per brightly logoed car (long treks in desert), and following a predetermined route and schedule in conjunction with the other cars in our escort. Our particular trek took over three hours each way and included periodic army checkpoints along the way where paperwork was reviewed and our estimated arrival time announced to the next checkpoint. I am keenly aware of the preparations entailed in such a trip because I was lucky (ha!) enough to share a dining table with a bratty 20-year-old throwing a weekend-long tantrum about not being able to arrange his own visit to Abu Simbel in what he supposed was ample time: less than 24 hours.
From our arrival in Cairo a couple of days earlier, it was evident that this would be a “high-touch” endeavor with both our tour company and the ubiquitous security checkpoints, and we prepared ourselves for it. Whether it was the three-ring combined army and police checkpoints heading to our hotel in Giza, added to the the hotel’s precautions —X-ray machines or metal detectors in every, single building, so that going to the main lobby then one’s room would require two added checks to the ones outside of the hotel perimeter— or the multiple security checkpoints at airports (where non-travellers cannot enter the building itself and have to wait for family or friends outside, behind a barricade set a couple of feet back from the doors, but accredited and clearly identified travel guides can pick up visitors on the tarmac), restaurants, museums and archeological sites, the overwhelming message is of security through force.
— Johnny Pineiro (@johnny_pineiro) September 15, 2015
Having debated our own visit at length over security considerations, seeing such a show was both reassuring and a nerve-wracking. (Okay, it’s nice they take this seriously, but do they really need so many freaking guns?) We booked our August 2015 visit in January and spent many an hour researching, preparing and registering with embassies, consulates, etc., ahead of our trip. The one thing we never actually considered as a risk factor in our security deliberations was the very government that proclaimed strong and decisive actions to keep tourists (and we hope, citizens) safe. Outside of those participating in protests (and boy, do they have reasons to protest there) and foreign correspondents, the idea was that the Egyptian people, the tourism industry and the government all eagerly wanted and welcomed visitors.
Today, a mere week after leaving the area, we woke up to news that the same armed forces bombed a tourist convoy in the western desert, killing a yet undetermined number of visitors (ironically, as many or more than terrorist attacks in the last couple of years) and is now proceeding to blame the victims. I’m not buying any of it since, as I described before, convoys are serious business whose detailed movements everybody in charge of local security knows about. From the scapegoating of the tourism agency and claims of incursions into prohibited zones (I’ll bet you anything the borders of said areas are conveniently fluid), to a deliberate information vacuum, the mess just keeps getting worse.
Sadly, with a few notable exceptions, most Spanish language media in the United States and Mexico reports on the official government story of an army civilian massacre as fact without additional information (ironically, a familiar exercise in Mexico, and one that commenters on social media are quick to point out) despite much publicized laws that in fact criminalize journalism.
While this could have been in truth a mistake (if you’re blind enough to ignore the large tourist company logos on all vehicles), I find it extremely hard to believe, and the least that could be done is to tell the truth. The Egyptian government’s response is a slap in the face of those that trek from around the world to visit, putting their lives in the hands of the Egyptian security apparatus despite the overwhelming narrative against vacationing there, not to mention to the the large numbers of Egyptians that do their best to eek out a living in the battered tourism industry. Worse yet, the continued army offensives are increasingly fatal not just for tourists, but also for Egyptian citizens whose names and passports don’t merit international news attention.
As is often said, admitting to a problem is the first step to fixing it. Will the Egyptian government at last and least do that this time? Time will tell.
You can follow Marce on Twitter @minsd.