Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism recently launched “Experience Egypt,” a digital TV channel on Instagram’s viewing-platform IGTV, as part of a campaign to promote tourism in the country. The channel will feature a variety of documentaries on Egypt’s “must-visit” tourist attractions, according to a statement released last week by the ministry. But Egypt may have a long way to go if it does not address certain socio-economic challenges.
This new marketing campaign, considered to be the first of its kind in the Middle East, could play a key role in restoring Egypt’s tourist industry to its former glory of just a decade ago. However, there are at least two significant problems in Egypt that could hold the country back from achieving this goal: the lack of free speech and the widespread scourge of sexual harassment.
Last month, 24-year-old Lebanese tourist Mona el-Mazbouh was arrested at Cairo airport for having posted a video on her Facebook page that went viral thought to be insulting to Egypt and Egyptians. In the video, Mazbouh called Egypt “a lowly, dirty country and Egyptian men pimps and women prostitutes,” according to Aljazeera.
Mazbouh complained about having been sexually harassed by taxi drivers and young men in the street, the poor restaurant service she had received during the holy month of Ramadan, and a robbery in which her money and several of her belongings were stolen.
During her 10-minute video tirade, Mazbouh also allegedly talked about the recently re-elected Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and said, “You [the Egyptian people] deserve what Sisi is doing to you, I hope that God sends you someone more oppressive than Sisi,” according to Reuters.
One day before being arrested, Mazbouh removed the controversial video from Facebook and posted a second video where she apologized to the “respectable people of Egypt.” During the second video, she explained that her first video was only intended for her 25 Facebook friends and that legal action would be taken against the individual who had re-shared it without her permission.
In the rest of her video, Mazbouh expressed her love for Egypt and her Egyptian friends and reiterated that her comments, which she said were spoken in anger, were directed toward a “specific category of men and women.”
Despite her attempts to ameliorate the situation, Mazbouh was charged with “deliberately broadcasting false rumors which [aimed] to undermine society and attack religions.” She was sentenced to eight years in jail, according to Ahram Online, an English language news site published by Egypt’s largest news organization.
Egyptian activist Amal Fathy was also arrested last month after posting a video on her Facebook page, where she shared her experience of sexual harassment and criticized the Egyptian government for its failure to protect women. Fathy also criticized the Egyptian government for the poor state of socio-economic affairs and public services in the country.
In 2014, former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party was ousted by military forces, and army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi then took office. Since his ascension to power, Egyptian human rights activists have said that their country is facing the worst crackdown in their history. They claim that Sisi is erasing all of the hard-earned freedoms that they won in the wake of the 2011 revolution.
Unfortunately, the state of women’s rights in Egypt is even more precarious than that of free speech, especially when it comes to the problem of sexual harassment. A UN Women’s report published in 2013 found that 99% of women surveyed across seven regions in the country had experienced some form of sexual harassment.
HarassMap, an award-winning app and volunteer-based initiative founded in 2010 with the aim of allowing women to highlight unsafe regions in Cairo, found that more than 95% of the women they surveyed in the capital had been harassed. But gender-based violence is not the only kind of violence that is plaguing Egypt and its people.
Egypt’s economy has also been heavily impacted by the increase in violence in the Sinai peninsula. In recent years, the Egyptian army has been fighting an insurgency in the Sinai by Ansar Bait Al Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) a Salafist extremist group that pledges allegiance to ISIS.
The group became notorious for downing a Russian passenger plane in the Sinai, which took the lives of 224 people in October 2015 and led Russia to impose a travel ban the following month. While the Russian travel ban has recently been lifted and tourists from Eastern Europe, Asia and other Arab countries are showing a greater interest in visiting Egypt, the country’s tourist industry has a long way to go before it fully recovers.
Last year, Egypt had 8.3 million visitors and received $7.6 billion in revenue, according to official statistics. In the next two to three years, it is estimated that visits to Egypt will be back on track to reach levels that the country has not seen since before the 2011 revolution.
In an interview with UAE-based newspaper The National, Egypt’s Tourism Minister Rania Al Mashat shared that “bookings for the second quarter of 2018 looked promising with visits to the Red Sea and Cairo on the rise.” However, these figures are still well below Egypt’s peak level in 2010, when more than 14.5 million tourists visited the country and brought in revenues of about $12.5 billion.
If Egypt wants its tourist industry to steadily contribute to its GDP, employment, and foreign currency reserve, it will have to take a long hard look at its current socio-economic and political situation. Both citizens and visitors in the country should not only be protected by the law but they should have the right to express their grievances when their rights have been violated.
Regardless of where they come from, what their gender is, or what they believe, everyone in Egypt deserves to be safe and feel safe. If Egypt fails to promote these ideals and safeguard safety of citizens and visitors, than its economy may pay the price in the long term.