Egypt's Anger Reaches a Tourist Haven

Egyptian opposition protesters celebrate on July 1, 2013 in Cairo's landmark Tahrir square Photograph by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images

In a parking lot in the center of Naama Bay, part of Egypt’s famous Sharm el-Sheikh resort, several hundred protesters chanted along with a man on a small wooden stage festooned with Egyptian flags. Holding pictures of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, with a red X over his face, the protesters demanded he leave office on the anniversary of his first year in power. The mood was ebullient. About 100 feet away, on the shore of the Red Sea, foreign tourists nonchalantly ate dinner outside their hotel.

It was quite a contrast with Cairo. In the capital city, the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters was ransacked overnight. Eight people were killed and 45 injured. Six others were killed across the country. The Egyptian army gave the nation’s leaders 48 hours to resolve the crisis or it would implement a “road map” for the future, adding that it would not directly involve itself in government or politics. Many interpreted the statement as a warning that a coup was possible.

In Sharm el-Sheikh, Islam, a 26-year-old who works in a souvenir shop along the resort town’s main drag, was among those who protested against Mursi. He speaks Russian, English, and Italian, having learned the languages from selling trinkets to tourists in the 8 years he’s worked here, but these days, he says, tourists barely visit the shop, and his language skills are getting rusty. “Morsi hasn’t done anything in a year,” Islam says of why he came out to demonstrate. “We need somebody to do something for the people, but now the poor are very poor, and the rich are very rich, there is no middle class. And business is horrible.”

Islam was one of millions across Egypt who took to the streets on Sunday night to protest the president. Though Egyptians had disparate reasons for joining the rallies—economic grievances, dislike of political Islam, or a fury at what they see as the Muslim Brotherhood’s vice-like grip on power—they had the same message: Morsi’s time was up.

Here in Egypt’s tourist Mecca, protesters know they are walking a fine line. Egyptians from all over the country move to Sharm el-Sheikh to seek employment, and money comes from foreign tourists—many worry further instability would ruin the already embattled industry. Yet they also want their voices heard.

“Even if they are anti-Morsi, most Egyptians are here to work. They make their living from tourism, and they don’t want to see disruption to tourism infrastructure,” says Mike Schneider, a dive school manager who has lived and worked in Sharm for four and a half years.

In the days leading up to the June 30 protest, a sense of foreboding ran through industry workers here as they waited to see what would happen in urban centers and how it would affect their fragile lifeline.

Tourism accounted for 11 percent of Egypt’s economy under previous President Hosni Mubarak, a vital chunk of Egypt’s GDP. The industry crumbled after the revolution but has slowly been rebounding, offering a glimmer of hope to the battered industry. The first three-quarters of the fiscal year saw a rise in tourism revenue—up 14 percent from the previous year. But the death of an American student in Alexandria on June 28 has increased concern here that tourists will be frightened away. The mention of instability and danger anywhere in Egypt is reflected in booking numbers here.

Their concern was warranted. In the runup to June 30, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to “defer nonessential travel to Egypt” while also stating “the security situation in most tourist centers, including Luxor, Aswan, and Red Sea resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh, continues to be calm.” The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office also urged British citizens to cancel all but essential travel to Egypt.

On Monday afternoon, Egyptians prepared for a second night of protests, with many vowing to stay in the streets until Morsi steps down, increasing the prospect of violence and turmoil.

“The real question now is what comes next, and some of the possible scenarios are not very encouraging,” says Shadi Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar who follows Egypt closely. Hamid says continued protests, possibly mass strikes and civil disobedience as well as obstinacy by members of the bureaucracy could paralyze the government and invite a military coup. “The military is returning to Egyptian politics. Even if they decide not to play a day-to-day role, they will be supervising the political process. This plunges Egypt into a whole new era of uncertainty. Effectively, the rules of the political game have been suspended,” Hamid says. “A military coup wouldn’t come on its own, it would provoke Islamist supporters of Morsi and set off more instability and violence. That obviously would not be the best thing for the tourism industry.”

The sector also has its share of industry-specific criticism of the president. In mid-June, Morsi appointed a member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya to be governor in Luxor province, a frequent stop on the tourist trail, setting off a storm of controversy and protests. Militants associated with al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya killed 58 tourists in 1997 in an attack designed to stem tourism revenue. Though the group later renounced violence and entered politics after Mubarak’s ouster, they retain their ultraconservative Islamic ideology. The appointed governor later resigned, but the episode sent shivers down the spine of an industry associated with more moderate customs and spelled further bad press for Egypt’s tourist sector.

Bad press is the one thing Egypt’s tourist industry fears the most. “I don’t think we should protest here,” says Adam Ortega, a 28-year-old guide who works in a tour company across from the protest parking lot. Ortega moved to Sharm from Cairo after the 2011 revolution in the capital shuttered business there. He did not join the protests Sunday night despite having no sympathy for the president.

Instead, he worries about the effect even a small protest in the streets of a resort town can have on tourist perceptions. “All tourists know Sharm, and they should know nothing will happen here. No one lives here; Egyptians come from the governorates to work here,” Ortega says. “If they want to protest against Morsi, they should go [to Cairo]. I worry because when tourists read about something happening, they will cancel their trip. We need to show them that Sharm is different.”

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