Tag Archives: egypt

Egypt travelblog

Egypt is anarchic.

That’s the best way to describe it to a Westerner, especially an American.  Things you take for granted like fixed prices, schedules, satisfaction guarantees, clear signage, experts, do not exist.  Travelling through Egypt will challenge your assumption that the world is dictatorships or democracies.

So whatever I write here could be null and void in a matter of months.

To give you an idea just how anarchic it is, even Google and Apple are not aware of some basics.  Apple thinks Egypt is at GMT +2.  But Egypt recently ditched daylight savings time, and is currently only GMT +1.  Simply travelling to Egypt will set your mobile phone ahead by an hour unless you set it to manual time settings.

Then there’s the Rowaysat bus station in Sharm El Sheikh.  Google Maps will tell you it’s at one spot, but it turns out it’s a couple miles down the road.  Only the taxi driver knew this.  And that’s just the beginning.

Okay, so now are you ready to understand how travel in Egypt works?  Good.

My travel was from September 7-10, 2016, from the Taba border crossing South of Eilat to Sharm El Sheikh, on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula.  It’s basically the only part of Sinai left accessible to tourists while the Egyptian military deals with ISIS in the rest of the peninsula.  The first thing to understand that it is safe, and you’ll be fine.  Sharm El Sheikh is a HUGE tourist destination, and Egypt has every incentive to make sure it stays that way.

The recent plane crash to Sharm damaged the industry enough, and they are not about to let it get damaged anymore.  Air traffic is already back with increased security.  And the road from Taba to Sharm is on lockdown – you’ll cross about a dozen checkpoints on this 140 mile road, about 3-4 which can ask for your passport.  Furthermore, you can cross the Taba border without a visa.  But your stamp will only allow you along this coastal road.  The border guard emphatically told me “no Cairo.  Only Taba Sharm.”

With this in mind, remember these people know what’s up.  They are telling you these things for your protection.  They are not the Man trying to bring you down.  Listen to them.

Now, how to actually make it there.  There’s two options.  One is a bus that goes from Sharm to Taba and back every day.  It leaves the Rowaysat bus station in Sharm at 9am every morning, and arrives in Taba about 1-1:30 pm.  It then leaves Taba back for Sharm at 3pm.  It makes two stops, at Nuweiba and Dahab.  As well as maybe one or two other stops where the bus driver knows someone.  But that’s neither here nor there.

The other way is by private taxi.  Now, forget everything you know about taxis and Uber.  A “taxi” is just a guy with his own car who sees you walking down the road and guesses you’re a tourist needing a ride.  He will then haggle you for a ride.  I paid $60 to get from Taba to Sharm via taxi, when he originally asked for $100.  I consider the trip worth the expense because he knows the roads and the checkpoints.  He introduced me to a couple of his favorite stops along the way, and the checkpoints tend to be a bit more lenient with him.  As he said “if you show your passport before he asks for it, he won’t ask for it.”

Now let’s talk a bit about haggling.  First off remember.  You’re a tourist.  They know this, and you know it.  So you will pay more than the natives – if the natives even get something like a taxi.  But keep a couple things in mind to help you haggle.  I knew the bus was only 50EGP which is about $6.  But he found me walking around Taba at 10:30am, and we both knew I didn’t feel like waiting till 3pm when the bus showed up.  And I also knew the hotel wanted $130 for their own transportation to take me.

So when you have alternatives in mind, it helps you set a price in your own mind and not be subjected to their tactics.  Which, frankly, I respect.  Because for these guys life is a hustle.  It’s not easy living in these parts.

And speaking of hotel transportation.  I spent the night at the Taba Hilton, figuring I’d get an early start on the day.  I tried searching the net for bus schedules, but the one site I found said the bus left Taba at 7am.  It’s a good thing I talked to the hotel clerk/concierge (there wasn’t a dedicated concierge).  He didn’t even know, he just knew the bus phone number and was able to find out that way they left at 3pm.

If you do decide to take the bus from Taba to Sharm, it’s about a half mile walk down the road from the border, on the beach side of the street, in this dusty strip mall.  Keep in mind Taba is a ghost town.  Good luck finding the guy who’ll sell you a ticket for the bus.  Remember, I took a “taxi” so I can’t help you there.

140 miles down some very “interesting” yet picturesque road found me in Sharm El-Sheikh.  And let me tell you, I was not expecting what I saw.  I thought it would be a few dusty hovels.  Sharm is a resort town that gives Las Vegas a run for its money (so to speak).  Like Vegas, gambling is legal in Sharm (as well as the rest of Egypt), it’s strewn with HUGE resorts and hotels, there’s the greenest grass you saw all over the place, massive malls.  But unlike Vegas you’ll have access to some of the nicest water and the best snorkeling and diving the world has to offer.  All at rock bottom prices.

If gambling is your thing, you’ll have a fun time.  They inherit all the machines Vegas throws away.  From my limited sampling the slot machines only take dollars.  But unless you win over $100, they spit out your winning in coins/tokens.  Which is so much more satisfying than those sterile strips.  And they still have the levers you can pull – though they don’t actually mechanically pull the slots.

Also remember they have different cultural ideas of comfort.  I stayed at the Domina Resort which was granted five stars by Egypts Ministry of Tourism.  But the beds were small twin size –  I felt like they were from a children’s summer camp.  Apparently they have yet to catch up on flat screens – both the Domina and the Hilton had CRTs in my room.

Beyond that, expect all the amenities like a fully appointed bathroom, AC, and wifi – something that will help you cut out the roaming costs.  On that note, have you downloaded WhatsApp to your phone yet?  Good.

For transportation, I was lucky enough to have a friend in the MFO, which is an international force to keep the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.  So we tended to use one of their cars to get around town.  I think if I didn’t have that luxury I would be tempted to rent a car – Sharm is pretty spread out (remember those HUGE resorts).  It was about five miles from our resort to the city’s central attractions.

Of course, you don’t really ever need to leave your resort.  There’s plenty to do, and plenty of nothing to do.  Just hang out on the beach all day and forget the world.  Or check out some boat trips.  Get your SCUBA certification and you’ll have a lot more options.

If you do want to get around town, and you don’t want to rent a car, it’s about 50EGP per trip around town.  Of course, it’ll be a haggle every time.  Which will get annoying.   But there’s not too many places to go.  There’s Old Town, and Na’ama Bay, which are both worth visiting for dining and shopping.

Dining tends to be fixed prices.  Shopping tends to not be.  Shopping is also a hustle.  I’ve learned the art of admiring from afar – as soon as you show the slightest bit of interest, some will just light up and start hustling you.  Not all of them are like that, and the ones who weren’t were the ones I tended to browse the most.  The biggest hustles are the tours.  All I can say about tours is, get them from Eilat, or someone you know.  I wouldn’t trust a random guy offering me a tour.  Mostly because it’s probably a ripoff and not what you thought it would be.

BTW keep a lot of dollars handy.  Egyptians tend to prefer dollars.  Some will even give you a preferred exchange rate – this includes both shopkeepers and cab drivers.  And if you didn’t know already, money is really good at getting you out of a jam.

Now, I took the bas back to Taba from Sharm.  There are two ways to get to the Rowaysat bus station to get you back to Taba – by taxi or by Bedouin caravan.  Assuming you’re not interested in waiting for a passing caravan, take the taxi.   Trust me.  I pinned it on a map and even the map is worthless.  It’s on a patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere.  The taxi driver should know, he should charge you about 50EGP.  Make sure he understands your bus leaves at 9am.

The bus station is a trip, and is well worth the experience.  The bus itself is reminiscent of a Bedouin caravan.  The windows are covered with heavy curtains to block out the harsh sun, with a few frills to boot.  The AC is sufficient.  The only thing is the seats are assigned, and at least my bus driver made us hold our seats even after half the bus emptied out.  And keep in mind he’s not personally catering to you like a taxi driver.  Pray for cooperative bowels, though you will stop for a few minutes at Dahab and Nuweiba.  Your best bet to fight discomfort is headphones and a good playlist.

The bus will also stop a number of times for government officials, who will board and inspect everyone’s passports.  So make sure you keep it handy.  Cargo shorts with buttoning pockets are great.

Now, last but not least (should also be first?), the border station.  There’s four basic steps to get out (in is in reverse): go through departure processing and get your passport stamped.  Show your stamped passport to the Egyptian guard and leave Egypt.  Show your passport to the Israeli guard and enter Israel.  And go through arrivals processing in Israel.

Now this is where Egyptian anarchy really reared its ugly head.  I don’t know where some random guard got the idea that I should go around the departure station.  But he was insistent I should do that and go straight to the border guard.  Needless to say that was a bad idea.  I’ll spare you the details but it helps to know what you’re doing and where you’re going.  Relying on or trusting the kindness of strangers is not a good idea.

If that discourages you, good.  Egypt is not for the meek.  Real travel is not.  If you’re interested in just having fun when you travel, stick with the safe spots.  But if you’re ready to challenge yourself, and take a few risks, you will see new dimensions of people you never thought existed.  That’s what makes travel, travel.

Open letter to The Economist

SIR – I will spare you any vitriol about your coverage of Israel last week Losing the War – I’m sure your mailbox has been full of it already. Rather I’ll say I’m disappointed. It was so focused on Israel, and whether you find it legitimate, you blinded yourselves to the real news and opportunities coming out of the entire region. Egypt is discarding politicised Islam, what seems to be a popular move and not just dictatorial fiat. They destroyed the tunnels to Gaza and are railing against Hamas in their media. Even Saudi Arabia is jumping on board. Israel is looking at its neighbors and seeing itself NOT surrounded by sworn enemies, for the first time ever.
It’s setting the stage for an entirely new politics and economy in the Middle East. To not report on this, and discuss the opportunities involved, well that’s like refusing to cash your dividend check because it was signed by a dirty Jewish banker.
Meanwhile, your analysis of people’s perception of Israel seems to only be a census of social rot. Ironic that it follows on the heels of “Tethered by History” and a rather weak defense of why the Jews should feel safe in Europe in the face of renewed anti-Semitism. It would be more interesting to see the demographics involved in this. If I am correct, classic European neo-Nazis and Muslim immigrants are getting together to bash Jews. Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed, and it’ll be a nasty hangover when they wake up from that orgy and look across the bed at each other. It calls into question the deepening decay of Europe.
A whole new world is being born out of this conflict in Gaza. The Economist’s mission is smart capitalism which is aware of political events and the economic opportunities they bring. Failing to see and analyze this would be a catastrophic failure on your part.

When New Worlds are Born

“Hannibal Tactic” – it’s the new term my mom told me the Israeli left was using about the Israeli military.  That somehow they killed those three soldiers themselves and blamed it on Hamas so they could break the truce.

The current conflict in Gaza, with all its Fog of War, has no shortage of such conspiracy theories.  Some on the left have even proposed that there’s oil under Gaza and the war is a pretext to exploit it. I’m not going to debunk them here, I’ll just say I’ve seen enough of them at work in my many years of political activity to notice what’s really going on.

The real issue is that people tend to get their worldviews at a certain point in their lives, and it works for a while, but then they never stop to examine their views.  Meanwhile, the world changes in ways that boggle the imagination and needs to constantly be rethought and re-analyzed.  So they keep trying to jam current events into a worldview that’s been obsolete for years, even decades, and only come across as more and more ridiculous.

Indeed that’s why I got into political theory.  It recognizes at its heart that there’s nothing absolute about reality, that it’s a social construct that is actively fought over by various political powers in a life and death struggle.

And what we’ve been seeing in the past three years, beginning with the Arab Spring and culminating in this conflict over Gaza, is our entire understanding of world politics being rewritten.

You could say the current understanding of the Middle East comes from two events: the 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism, and the Camp David accord declaring peace between Egypt and Israel in 1978.  This set a framework where Israel was isolated by Arab neighbors who were steadfast enemies, while Egypt maintained a shaky peace that everyone thought was only maintained by a dictator against the population’s will (Anwar Saddat, the Egyptian signatory, was assassinated).

And the world watched and interpreted those events in Israel and the Occupied Territories according to that framework.  This gave Israel very few options for dealing with Palestinians in those territories, since any military action met with swift calls for a cease fire by its neighbors.  And Arabs both in the occupied territories and neighboring countries like Lebanon felt much bolder to take potshots at Israel.

Enter the Arab Spring. Which I called a pro-Western, secular democratic revolution in earlier blog posts.  Others quickly lamented all the shortcomings of these revolutions, which is complaining that the newborn can’t speak, but I saw world-changing potential.

And now those potentials are coming forth.  The major change in this current conflict with Gaza is Egypt is no longer a friend of Hamas.  Egypt destroyed the smuggling tunnels leading into Gaza, their media rails against Hamas, and as I write this they are negotiating with Hamas without Israel’s presence, and it sounds like they’re just trying to bring Hamas back to reality.

Indeed it seems like Hamas is still operating with the demands and politics of the 80s, and their unpleasant surprise is now – there’s a new reality in the Middle East.

And, while the world continues to rail against Israel, Egypt quietly dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing .  A quick search of the comments section shows that Egyptians welcome this move.   But very few news channels are really exploring this.  CNN posted this, which is a start:

And even they aren’t noticing the elephant in the room.  Wait a minute – Egypt is ALLIED with Israel?? Wait another minute … SAUDI ARABIA and JORDAN are allied with Israel?  Even if it’s under the radar, even if overtly they insert an obligatory “death to Israel” at every speech (like this guy) we’ll take it with jubilation!

Because at the same time, they’re alerting Hamas and the rest of the world to a new political reality.  It’s a reality where Israel will look around at its neighbors and see, if not friends, at least people with similar interests and temporary alliances.  And that is HUGE for a country that’s been isolated since its inception.

Like I told my mom, just wait another month.  Everything you know about the Middle East is going to be thrown out the window, and a whole new world will be born.

Numbers, dammit! I need numbers!!!

It’s an old political science lesson: when the camera pans out, it’s journalism. When it pans in, it’s propaganda.
The former is what we saw in Egypt two years ago. The latter is what we’re seeing today.
It means the demonstrations calling the overthrow of Mubarrak numbered in the millions. Meanwhile, it looks like the demonstrations calling for the restoration of Morsi are numbering only in the thousands. It seems like a lot in a country like ours where nobody demonstrates over much of anything, but it confirms my opinion in my last post that the Morsi faction is a small, well organized minority which “sees it as an all or nothing battle” (to quote a CNN correspondent).
With this in mind, struggle and death is as inevitable as it is in any revolution. At least if you want to move forward to a democratic society.
And the media continue to forget any real numbers while they fumble around blindly with their senile moralistic lens. We need numbers, goddammit! How big are these pro-Morsi demonstrations, really? What people in Egypt are saying about it? Where are the 33 million who came out in support of Morsi’s ouster?
Killing 500 people to crush a small minority aimed at strangling a fledgling democracy is really a small price to pay, especially when they say it’s an all-or-nothing battle. Consider how many are dead in Syria over that battle.
Or heck, look at how many are dead in Iraq, and how much money have we spent there? This is a doubly vexing point, considering John McCain just went on the rampage calling this a coup and saying we need to take out all our money from Egypt. Okay Mr. Finish-The-Job-10+years-In-Iraq guy. Though maybe it’s not so vexing considering the party out of power in DC always plays the anti-imperialist bullshitter card.
Please, the moralistic bullshit needs to stop. These people are journalists, not philosophers. They are not qualified to pontificate on political matters. Give us some real numbers. Tell us what’s happening on the ground. Don’t pan to shots of one person here, a few there, and scream how horrible it is. You know what’s horrible? These guys taking up airtime.

It’s the opposite of a coup

I was reading The Economist’s lament (Has the Arab Spring Failed?) about the military’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that this was a grave step backwards for Eqypt. Ironically, I was reading this on July 14, aka Bastille Day. Because it seems our venerated Western Democracies are so old that we’ve become a bit senile and have forgotten our own violent births.
Now I know there’s a lot of confusion about what exactly is going on, and I’m used to a population that just fumbles for gut reactions (military bad, voting good) because they’re so far away from actually being able to understand politics. But when established journalists start reporting with this lack of understanding, it’s cause for concern.
So let’s do a quick chronology of events, so we can see where we’re really at, shall we?
The ouster of Mubarrak was caused by a truly popular groundswell – a SECULAR groundswell. Of this there can be no denial. The secularists in Egypt sacrificed for that revolution and they made it. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood was sitting on the sidelines, waiting for their moment to take advantage of it.
The details of their rise to power since then are a bit fuzzy, but it sounds like they used every shady and intimidating trick in the book to ascend to power, and once they did so, to solidify their absolute control of society. That meant pushing the secularists out.
That’s when the military stepped in. On the side of the secular revolutionists.
Now I understand this is a novel concept. When we hear the word “coup”, it conjures up connotations of Pinochet and Franco, who rose to power AGAINST a popular groundswell of leftists. But let’s continue.
The military took over, and 33 MILLION people came out in support of the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since then, I’ve seen report after report of the military shooting demonstrators. Who are these demonstrators? Not the secularists. They’re supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, sore at their loss of power. This is to be expected, and is a necessary part of Egypt’s transition to a modern democracy we can all be proud of.
Why are we wringing our hands about this? This is why I bring up our own senility.
Democracy isn’t absolute, and it doesn’t come about by a simple ballot. Society has all sorts of anti-democratic forces lurking about – monarchists, aristocrats, slaveholders, and yes, Islamists and clerics. These people are removed only by force, not by the vote.
Remember Cromwell? Of course you don’t, it was only a 40 year Reign of Terror that history books calmly gloss over in that staid progression of Kings. I can name the American Revolution, or better yet the French Revolution, but I imagine you get my point by now.
This is what’s happening in Egypt today. We would to well to tip our hats and nod in their direction, and rally for the secularists to come to power and push for Egyptian society to move in the democratic direction it needs to go. This is the only roadmap to democracy.
UPDATE: And another thing. If we were to adopt this lens, we would see just how much positive there is going on in Egypt right now. What’s really missing in all this is some numbers, and this is where journalists should be applying their resources. How numerous are the pro-Morsi supporters? How numerous are the secularists?
I’m only gleaning this information from random wide-shots of the demonstrations, and so my vision is a bit fuzzy. But what I’m seeing is the pro-Morsi demonstrators are pretty small compared to the secularists. They’re just far better organized, since they’ve been around for many decades already. This is why they need to be repressed. They’re old weeds that are choking off the new society Egypt wants to become.