Egypt struggles to lure tourists back
Although worst is over, security issues still plague country
CAIRO, Egypt — On the night of Jan. 28, as Cairo's police forces retreated from the waves of angry protesters advancing on Tahrir Square through thick clouds of white tear gas, just one block away, thieves broke into the world-famous, and once-highly secure, Egyptian Museum.
With no security in sight, the looters dropped ropes through a sand-caked skylight and slid down.
They nabbed gold jewelry from a gift shop and smashed several museum displays in their search for more precious metals. In total, 31 artifacts were stolen — including part of a statue from the museum's prized collection of golden burial shrouds discovered in the tomb of King Tut.
Now, more than four months after the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak, police are back on duty and Egypt's top archeologist, Zahi Hawass, believes the celebrated museum — as well as the rest of the country — is ready to open for business.
"We are securing and protecting everything. Everything is back to normal," said Hawass, Egypt's famous antiquities minister, in an interview with the Star Tribune newspaper in St. Paul, Minn. He was speaking after a lecture there that was part of a 10-day tour of the United States aimed at convincing Americans that Egypt is now safe.
"If the Cairo Museum is safe, then Egypt is safe," he told the newspaper.
Hawass, who has been dubbed the “Daddy of all Mummies,” is hoping that his campaign will overhaul Egypt’s damaged image abroad and will lure Americans — and their highly coveted tourist dollars — back to the country.
Egypt's military-led interim government, which is desperately trying to revive the country's battered economy, hopes so too.
But it won’t be easy.
Violent images hard to shake
In the weeks that the revolution raged, the Egyptian Museum served as a televised backdrop for violent street battles, whip-wielding camel drivers, official brutality and sexual assault.
Although those days of chaos are largely over, such images continue to play over and over again in the minds of even the most intrepid travelers. And with fewer police on Cairo’s streets, the few who are visiting say they have felt on edge.
“When the crowd started banging on the sides of our car, I thought we were getting hijacked,” said Rebecca, 36, a British tourist who recently traveled to Egypt with her husband. The two said they inadvertently drove through a labor strike in the northern Delta last week.
“We remembered the news on television from Tahrir and said, 'This is why we shouldn't have come to Egypt.' It was scary," she recalled.
Before the revolution took hold, Egypt’s busy capital, with its nearly 20 million residents, was long considered one of the safest cities in the world. Most visitors strolled the crowded streets at all hours of the night — impressed that Cairo felt more secure than places like New York City or London.
The U.S. State Department, to the relief of Egypt's interim government, lifted its travel warning for Egypt in late April. And some multinational companies in Egypt are starting to ease restrictions too, once again permitting their foreign employees to venture out into Tahrir Square.
Egypt’s government last week lifted a nighttime curfew that had been in effect since the night the Egyptian Museum was looted.
But many foreigners and Egyptians alike said that although the violent clashes of the revolution, broadcast live around the world for weeks, had passed and that security had improved, things are not what they used to be.
With civilian police still not fully redeployed, the possibility of sporadic unrest has become a common risk for both residents and visitors.
Earlier this month, hundreds of angry protesters torched a security vehicle and hurled rocks at a Cairo police station after locals accused a policeman of torturing a bus driver. In the midst of the chaos, two European tourists frantically raced through the throng in an attempt to reach the relative safety of their hotel.
"There’s an edginess now to the city. Cairo doesn't have the same feel to it," said Denis Sullivan, who has lived off and on in Egypt's capital since 1984.
Sullivan, the director of Middle East studies at Northeastern University, has led American student exchange trips to Egypt for the past 18 years. This year, however, he decided to send his students to Jordan and Turkey instead.
"It was a huge letdown, but I had to make the call," Sullivan said. "I didn't want to bring 32 American students here with the current lack of security, at night in particular. I've never had to worry about students here. But now I do."
Even Hawass' own chief of staff, Ramadan al-Badry, a seasoned manager of the ministry's 35,000 employees, took a long pause when asked if Egypt was safe enough for tourists to visit.
"My hesitation is not because I think Egypt's is unsafe. Quite the contrary, I think it is quite safe for foreigners," said al-Badry, even after admitting that his own family is still living in America after having evacuated during the uprising.
"It's just that I'm an Egyptian who used to go around the streets at all hours of the night when we were not living under a curfew."
Mohamed Abd El Raouf, the manager of a travel agency located across the street from the Egyptian Museum, said his business from the United States, England and Japan has fallen by more than 80 percent.
Few foreign tourists could be spotted outside the once-crowded museum courtyard this week.
"Tourists are scared because of everything they've watched on television," he said. "But if you live here, you know that things are not really that bad."
Michael Fiorenza, a retiree from California, brought his wife and daughter to the Egyptian Museum toward the end of their family's recent visit.
While strolling outside in the gardens, Fiorenza and his family gazed up in awe at the charred skeleton of a massive building next door that had caught fire when Mubarak's party headquarters was torched by protesters in January — a glaring reminder of the chaos from the past.
"I'm fine, but I think my wife is still a little scared. We didn't really know what to expect, it was a new country for us," Fiorenza said. "But we were still going to come to Egypt regardless."
Then again, Fiorenza admitted, his family more or less had to come — they planned the vacation and bought their tickets last year, months before Egypt's revolution.
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.