A postcard from Egypt


Whilst I write this, I sit in a classroom near central Cairo along with a group of 25 mostly Egyptian students. As part of a Model United Nations conference, they are discussing terrorism in Central and Western Africa. They do so not in their native Arabic, but in English – and across the corridor, there is a similar discussion being conducted in French. They have researched the countries they are representating, they are speaking confidently and knowledgeably about the topic, and they show more respect for each other in their debating skills than many of their adult counterparts. Their ages range from 12 to 18.

Many people here are finding the UK’s decision on Sharm el-Sheikh airport a difficult one to follow. They understand the need to protect the UK’s citizens, but are confused by a need to protect their own. Egypt’s economy depends on tourism to a massive extent – from sun seekers in Sharm and Hurghada, to historical voyages to Luxor, Aswan and Cairo itself. The country also has a young population, with an average age of 25, and youth unemployment as high as 1 in 3.

It’s easy, then, to see why the UK’s decision has gone down here as well as a glass of Nile water. But what seems to have been missed – particularly by the insular British media – is the unintended consequences. Already the effects of the mass cancellations forced on the tour operators are showing in hotel prices, with 5* hotels owned by international brands advertising bed & breakfast for as little as £50pppn for this weekend. Inevitably, this means that, if the flight ban is not lifted quickly, the low paid staff in many of these hotels are likely to find themselves out of a job (and potentially out of a home too.)

What will become of these, mostly young, poorly educated workers? Are they likely to find a job quickly, or be able to afford a move to another country where jobs are available? The economic vacuum which this creates – along with the political vacuum which exists in much of Sinai – provides fertile recruiting ground for terrorist organisations in Sinai.

Alistair Carmichael wrote an interesting piece on this site some days ago about the visit of President al-Sisi to London, prior to the announcement of the flight bans. Right now, rightly or wrongly, people here in Egypt aren’t concerned about the points Alistair raised. Instead, they are concerned about security. They want a return to the relative stability that existed for many of the Egyptian population pre-2011. The terrorists – be they Daesh (the Egyptian name for ISIS), Muslim Brotherhood, or other terrorist groups – are not wanted in their country.

In protecting their own people, the UK is indirectly putting at risk the people of another country. We – the UK – have a responsibility to make sure that terrorist groups become less attractive. This may mean temporarily increasing aid to Egypt to go some way to mitigating the lost tourist income; it certainly means working with Egypt (something which is not always easy) to allow flights to start again as quickly as possible to restrict the damage done to Egypt’s economy.

Alistair talked about how the Prime Minister liked to invoke “British values”, although it was something he was uncomfortable with. Since I came here in August, I have been greeted with the kind of welcome which I would argue meets “British values”, although, as an immigrant, the welcoming nature of it probably means the Daily Mail would disagree. But British values certainly mean fair play, and if we are to take an action – justified or not – which directly affects another country, we have a duty to ensure its future, in the shape of the young people sitting in front of me now, does not suffer as a result.

* Keith Legg is a former councillor and activist in Fife, who moved with his family to teach in an international school in Cairo in August. The views above are written in a personal capacity.

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  • nigel hunter 10th Nov '15 - 12:47am

    The British Government protected its citizens in a panic. Once the incident was exposed it was clear that security would be tightened The holiday makers could remain and show defiance against whoever planted the bomb, DEFIANCE AGAINST TERRORISM SHOWS SOLIDARITY. Equally, by allowing the “status quo” Egyptians would not be put at risk of unemployment. Unemployment can breed discontent and fuel support for terrorism. Terrorists know how to wind up their enemies.

  • Nigel – So why, if tourism is important to Egypt’s economy did the Egyptian authorities allow security at Sharm to become so dangerously lax? Comments from British tourists waiting to leave Sharm appear to indicate airport security was very haphazard. Tighter security may not have prevented terrorist infiltration at the airport but don’t berate the British government for advising its citizens to leave Sharm.

  • Jenny Barnes 10th Nov '15 - 9:05am

    I understand that the most likely route for the bomb was an airside member of staff putting it in someone’s luggage after security. No amount of security theatre is going to simply deal with that. I have just returned from a diving holiday in Egypt – and while they do have among the best diving in the world, I really didn’t appreciate not being able to get home as planned, even though in the end it was only a 2 day delay. Just like many hotel etc staff, the boat crews and dive guides are on short term contracts and will be out of work. Right now I’m not sure I’d want to fly anywhere on holiday – I am certainly not one of the public who would happily accept even further lengthening of the time taken to get through security etc to fly.

  • Pat – the British Government has never advised its citizens to leave Sharm, nor has it implemented any “rescue flights” – please read the FCO guidance carefully and don’t rely on the UK media for its oversensationalised, fictional account. The original plan was that passengers would return on their normal flights back, and there was no requirement for people to leave. Sharm itself is perfectly safe (the Daily Express’ story about ISIS in restaurants etc. the other day was no more than a headline and had no evidence whatsoever to back up its assertion) and there is no reason for people to leave the town early.

    Jenny – there are things that can be done for employees, for example several screening checks before being able to get airside. I understand that’s what happens at UK airports and it is that part which is missing, rather than increased security on passengers.

    One other point I didn’t make in the article – the original evacuation was planned for a Friday. Anyone who has been anywhere near an Islamic country knows that it’s virtually impossible to do anything at least on a Friday morning – particularly getting more staff on duty to deal with passengers – because of prayers. That’s the fault of the UK government.

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