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Cairo: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

© Martin Parr - Magnum Photos

The instability of Egypt travel isn’t quite over, but the capital city’s ancient splendor is there for the adventurous.

Last December, just after my most recent visit to Egypt, a Paris-based former colleague sent me a message on Facebook. She had planned a five-day Christmas vacation in Cairo and Giza with her two children, but images of demonstrators facing tanks at the presidential palace in Heliopolis made her nervous. “Not sure whether to go or not,” she wrote. “When cars are on fire in Paris, it rarely affects us, because it’s miles away.” Cairo, she feared, was different. “Should we postpone?” she asked.

As a Newsweek bureau chief and freelance foreign correspondent, I’ve covered conflicts, coups and revolutions for the past 22 years, from Kosovo to Afghanistan. I’ve been kidnapped twice by armed groups: in the Gaza Strip in 2001 and in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. So I’ll grant that my threshold for risk is unusually high. But I also know Egypt—I’ve made a dozen trips there since 2000, half of them after the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. I immediately replied to my former colleague’s Facebook message: “By all means go.”

For nearly two years, Egypt’s tourism industry has struggled to overcome the fallout from an unfinished revolution. A barrage of negative news continues to convey the image of a nation on the brink of a meltdown.

“We thought we would have four bad months after the revolution, then things would go back to normal,” says Amr Badr, the Egypt director of Abercrombie & Kent, the U.S.-based tour operator. The tourism industry in Egypt lost about 30 percent of its business in 2011, or $3 billion, compared with the previous year. In 2012, A&K business was down 50 percent from 2010, says Badr, and the prospect of a recovery “seems further and further away.”

The truth is, outside of a handful of clash points in Cairo—Tahrir Square, the Ministry of Defense, the presidential palace—life has gone on almost completely undisturbed in the rest of the city. During each of my recent trips, I’ve made a point of meeting friends for dinner at Sequoia (see “Cairo’s Safest Bets”), on the northern tip of Zamalek island, a ten-minute taxi ride from Tahrir. On an outdoor wooden deck packed with a mix of young Egyptians and expatriates, I can spend hours enjoying the balmy riverine breezes, watching traditional wooden sailboats known as feluccas cruise at a leisurely pace along the Nile and dining on Lebanese mezes and surprisingly good sushi. The unrest and political volatility seem a world away.

“The violence is almost entirely localized,” explains Randi Danforth, who works for the American University in Cairo’s publishing arm in Tahrir Square and who has had a front seat to the unrest since January 2011.

So why the impression that Cairo is a war zone? Some, including journalists themselves, say the media is partly to blame. “Yesterday my colleague in Rome writes a headline, ‘Fire in Cairo,’?” says Fabio Angelicchio, a correspondent for Italy’s La7 channel who had come to cover the riots that broke out in early December. “I talked with [my colleague] and said, ‘Hi, I am eating ice cream on a bridge over the Nile. Where is the fire?’” There had been some bloody clashes, but the incidents were confined to several blocks around the palace, and the police swiftly brought the situation under control. In the rest of Cairo, life went on unaffected. Such brief and restricted conflagrations can give the impression that the whole country is going up in flames, but in fact that has never been the case.

“Egypt is a safe country. Since the revolution until now we have no problem for any tourist, nobody killed, nobody hit anyone,” says Imad Said, who has been escorting tourists on camel rides at the Great Pyramid of Giza for 19 years. “But if they watch the television news, they don’t see the true thing. You are here now, are you scared?”

There are times when the unrest is unavoidable. On my way into the city from Cairo airport in December, I passed near the presidential palace, where fighting between supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi had been going on all afternoon and evening. Under the glare of streetlights, two men clad in gray dishdashas were attacking each other with wooden clubs. The bloodied pair circled each other, a few feet from my taxi, while a mob egged them on. There was not a policeman in sight. It’s scenes like this that have led some travel agents to take a more cautious approach. “Right now there’s just too much negativity,” says Bill Fischer, CEO of Fischer Travel. “We don’t want people to run into problems. We don’t want to be the ones who recommend it at this time.”

Grinding poverty and desperation in the post-revolution era have also seeded the atmosphere of Cairo with more tension than usual. A day after my arrival in Egypt, at the entry gate of the Pyramids of Giza, a dozen guides rushed my car. They banged on the windows, hammered on the doors. “You need guide? Camel? Horse?” they shouted. Then, to my astonishment, one shabbily dressed man took a running leap and landed on the hood. He held on by his fingertips and wouldn’t let go. The driver swerved back and forth, slammed on the brakes and began yelling in Arabic until he fell off. “The last time the driver almost killed one of them,” my translator told me. “He got out and started punching the guy.”

Being a foreigner in Cairo is almost certain to draw attention—not all of it welcome. In Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the revolution, I had the most unsettling encounter of my weeklong stay in the country. As I wandered through a sit-in, complete with vendors selling cotton candy and corn on the cob, I felt somebody grab my right shoulder, hard. I whirled around to confront a wiry young man with a manic grin, his arm raised with what looked, for one terrifying moment, like a knife. It turned out to be a rubber prop. He cackled and ran off, but the prank was a reminder of how easily the mood can shift.

These kinds of encounters can leave one feeling jumpy—perhaps even questioning the wisdom of visiting this unpredictable place—but there’s a payoff, too. Half an hour after I witnessed the bloody scuffle near the palace, my taxi pulled up to the Marriott beside the Nile. Bellhops whisked off my luggage and escorted me through the lobby of the Moorish-style pink sandstone palace, built by the Khedive Ismail for the Suez Canal inauguration celebrations in 1869. Affluent tourists, businessmen, United Nations staffers and the Cairo elite dined in unseasonably warm weather in the garden. I sat by the pool, ordered a shisha, a water pipe, and listened to Egyptian pop music wafting from the garden lounge.

At nine o’clock on a December morning, the parking lot in front of the Pyramids of Giza was nearly deserted. Idle camel drivers stood by in the chill as the rising sun bathed the city below in a luminescent glow. Members of a lone Japanese tour group clambered over the huge limestone blocks that lead to the burial chamber inside the Great Pyramid, the 481-foot-high tomb constructed for the fourth-dynasty pharaoh Khufu, otherwise known by the Greek name Cheops, around 2560 B.C.

Before the revolution, about four million people came to the Pyramids of Giza annually, more than those who visited the Taj Mahal or the terracotta army of Xi’an, China. Now the number has plummeted to perhaps one third of that. But Scott Arenna, an environmental consultant from Connecticut, and his girlfriend, Erica Brandsma, were discovering that traveling in the aftermath of the Arab Spring offered unanticipated pleasures. There had been no long lines, no tour buses, no jostling crowds, only empty museum galleries, silent burial chambers and unspoiled desert vistas. “It sometimes feels like we’re the only ones here,” said Brandsma, who had shrugged off warnings from friends and family members about Egypt’s volatility. Arenna, a lean, bearded figure carrying a brown backpack, had also been advised against making the trip. “My father and brother called the day before I left. They said, ‘Are you sure you want to go?’” he told me. During two days in and around Cairo, they said, they had never felt in danger. And the serenity and silences, they said, had allowed them to better appreciate the grandeur of the ancient world.

I visited Saqqara, a nearly 5,000-year-old desert necropolis dominated by one of the world’s oldest manmade stone buildings, the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Located about 25 miles south of Cairo, the pyramid is a primitive yet mesmerizing monument—a lopsided structure consisting of six tapered platforms, or mastabas, of limestone blocks, with a 90-foot-deep burial chamber burrowed inside it, and five miles of subterranean passageways that were meant to guide the dead pharaoh to a spiritual union with Osiris, the god of the underworld. The instability since the revolution all but wiped out tourism here, director Kamal Wahid told me as we stood in the deserted plaza in front of the sagging structure, built around 2650 B.C.

I had a similar experience at the Egyptian Museum—which lies smack in the middle of the most volatile corner of Cairo, between Tahrir Square and the blackened hulk of former president Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters, looted and burned by demonstrators in the first days of the revolution and still in ruins. “No foreigners want to come near this place. It’s too close to Tahrir,” a guide named Hassan Al Ismail told me in the courtyard of the century-old museum after I had navigated past noisy demonstrators, barbed wire and aggressive hashish dealers to get there. Inside, the fractiousness of contemporary Egypt gave way to the allure of the ancient one. I wandered through silent halls overflowing with coffins, mummies, golden necklaces, bejeweled combs, sarcophagi, stelae, colossal granite statues of the rulers, fragmentary walls embedded with vivid hieroglyphics, spookily lifelike busts of ancient queens and kings—the world’s most extensive collection of antiquities from the age of the pharaohs. A few Egyptian tourists drifted through, but otherwise I had one of the greatest museums on earth to myself.

Travelers to Egypt are likely to experience that feeling for some time to come. But for those willing to tolerate the occasional whiff of tear gas from Tahrir Square, or wishing to observe a society reshaping after decades of a dictatorship, this is a remarkable time to visit. President Morsi rescinded his controversial power-expanding decree in mid-December, and Egyptians approved a new constitution, an important step in the transition to a post-revolutionary democracy and, perhaps, political stability. Still, the conflict between Morsi’s Islamic supporters and secular democrats has not been resolved. That’s bad news for everyone from postcard sellers to hoteliers to tour operators, but good news for those visitors willing to overcome their anxieties, overlook the bad press and take the leap. In early January I received another Facebook message from my Paris-based former colleague. She and her children had decided to visit Cairo over Christmas after all. “It has been fantastic!” she wrote. “Arriving at Aswan at this moment on a friend’s boat. You were right: not a soul anywhere, including on the river. Bliss.”

Cairo’s Safest Bets

Luxury outfitter Melissa Biggs Bradley on what to do once you’ve made the leap.

Stay: The Four Seasons Nile Plaza is still the city’s premier address, thanks to its waterfront location and a restaurant collection that draws locals, travelers—anyone looking for excellent international cuisine. Rooms start at $300; 1089 Corniche El Nil; 20-2/2791-7000; fourseasons.com.

Eat: Located on Zamalek island, Abou El Sid is the place to find authentic Egyptian food. The antiquated Ali Baba–esque atmosphere pairs perfectly with the excellent mezes. At 157 Sharia 26th of July; 20-2/2735-9640; abouelsid.com.

Lounge: Sequoia, a riverside café and lounge on the Nile, is where to spend your nights. The sail-like awnings create the feeling of a Nile felucca, and the air is thick with flavored smoke from hookah pipes. $ At 53 Abou El Feda St.; 20-2/2735-0014; sequoiaonline.net.

Shop: In the Cairo Khan el-Khalili bazaar, Atlas Silks sells kaftans and Western and traditional clothing as well as bags and slippers—all crafted from beautiful, embroidered Egyptian silk. At Khan el-Khalili, on Sikket El Badistan; 20-2/2591-8833.

The Guide to Get: Sherine Barakat is a sophisticated Cairo native who has escorted heads of states and dignitaries. She’s warm, wise and incredibly plugged in. To book, call Indagare Travel at 212-988-2611 or go to indagare.com.

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