It’s among the world’s most ancient travel destinations, fascinating everyone from the Greeks to the Victorians. Yet Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, has been in turmoil since the Jan 25, 2011, revolution that ousted president-for-life Hosni Mubarak. In 2013, Egyptian General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi deposed democratically elected Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in a military coup. Hundreds have been killed.
There was a brief hope the revolution would improve things for Egypt’s LGBT community. Gay people were in Tahrir Square, the heart of the revolution, from the beginning. There had even been a plan to hold an LGBT rights rally in Tahrir in 2011, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise brought fear to liberal groups planning the event.
The revolution has decimated tourism, once a key part of Egypt’s economy, with formal group gay travel suffering in turn.
Philip Sheldon, head of HE Travel, (formerly Hanns Ebensten and Alyson Adventures), says his Key West company “ran the first gay tours to Egypt back in the 1970s, and we have run successful tours in nearly every year since then, regardless of the political winds.” But last year, despite advance reservations, a tour planned for the American Thanksgiving period was cancelled because “we did not feel confident that we could guarantee an enjoyable tour without interruption from local events in Egypt.” The tour, which costs more than $6,000 per person, will be offered again this year.
Robert Sharp, of Out Adventures in Toronto, says he has been forced to cancel Egyptian trips at the last minute. “After the revolution, the country is just not stable enough for us to be confident about client safety, which is our top priority. We feel that travel to the region is just too risky.”
Even regional tour companies have stopped offering Egyptian tours. Israeli-American Russell Lord, of Kenes Tours in Tel Aviv, says, “Egypt is not being requested by any of my tourists as a principle destination or an add-on” by North American visitors. “Perceived bouts of security and normality in Egypt are all too often broken by mob lynches,” he says, adding that some rioters burn American flags and that the Israeli embassy has been sacked by a rampaging crowd, with police doing little to stop it.
For these reasons, Lord says, “I would not recommend a gay traveller to visit Egypt during these unsettled times.”
Sharp emphasizes the various dangers the chaos presents: “If the Canadian government issues an ‘avoid all travel’ warning, all travel insurance becomes void, and trust me, you don’t want to be in a country that is politically unstable without travel insurance, specifically medical coverage.”
This does not mean, however, that all gay travellers have been avoiding Egypt. A few contacted for this article visited Egypt primarily for business purposes and did not want to be identified. Marc, an American, visited Egypt several times during 2011 and 2012. “I was never uncomfortable in Cairo or any other city,” he says. “The news media focuses on what happens in one or two city blocks for a couple of days and makes it look like the entire city is in flames. Egyptians are generally secular and fond of Americans.”
He says he has met gay Egyptians “online and enjoyed talking with them about the protests. They were somewhat optimistic about their future but did not expect conditions to get any better for gays.” In addition to Cairo, he also spent time in Alexandria and says there were “very friendly gays, but they are still concerned about their privacy.” He says North American visitors should not “expect to be obvious out in public [and] still need to be subdued and subtle when interacting with gays. They have to worry about their security.”
One American, who asked to be identified as Dakota, says he travels frequently through the region and “saw the entire country” over the summer of 2013. “I think everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, should visit Cairo.” During his recent trip, he stayed in the Tahrir Square Hilton and went to “some of the demonstrations and learned a lot about the people.”
Dakota says gay travellers to Egypt need to “use common sense,” explaining that “a lot of guys pose as gay online and bring guys back to rooms where they get robbed.” Locals warned him that some of the crimes are committed in conjunction with American ex-pats working to fool gay Western visitors. The vulnerability of North American tourists who come to see more than just ancient ruins is clear, Dakota emphasizes: “Cruising areas are not safe. Beyond not understanding the culture, gay posers are also there looking for tourists.”
Gay Egyptians currently in Egypt, including activists, declined to comment for this article. However, Mohammed, a gay Egyptian in New York, says that gay North Americans unfamiliar with the country should “go with someone else who knows Egypt. Someone who speaks the language, who knows what is going on.” He suggests foreigners skip Cairo altogether and head to the beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh: “It is far away. The government makes sure it is safe, because the tourists are there.”
Scott Long, formerly the Human Rights Watch LGBT director and now a human-rights consultant living in Cairo, says that when visiting Egypt, Westerners must be aware “you’re not in your own country and figure out what the standards and expectations may be in the place where you actually are. If you meet LGBT Egyptians, take your cues from them.”
Long was instrumental in bringing to light the 2001 Queen Boat incident, when 52 Egyptians were arrested and tortured after a gay party boat was raided; Westerners on the boat were released. “The Cairo 52 case is remembered in the community but more as a source of unspecified apprehension that something might recur in the future,” he says. He notes that by 2008, “there was a revival of gay life in central Cairo, and there is now a surprising number of cafés and a few other watering holes.”
With visibility, however, comes the fear of a backlash, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power and the subsequent military coup “makes many LGBT people fearful for the future,” Long says. “I don’t think the Arab Spring has changed much of anything for LGBT people.” Recently, he says, raids have taken place at saunas popular with gay locals.
He says that for travellers who are discreet and aware, “I don’t think it’s hard to visit right now. The tourist industry is intact and in fact is looking for customers.” For visitors interested in learning more about gay Egypt, Long recommends Youssef Chahine’s films, which touch on homosexuality, or novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. Alaa Al-Aswany’s books, in particular The Yacoubian Building, which has been made into a film, also look at Egyptian homosexuality. In his book In the World of Boys, journalist Mostafa Fathi’s main character explores his sexuality.
Egyptian same-sex history goes further back, with Long and Sheldon mentioning the tradition of older Berber men pairing with younger men in the oasis town of Siwa. There is also the curious Tomb of the Two Hairdressers, thought to be lovers. Sheldon calls the image of the men embracing “one of our favourite paintings.”
Such joys are why Sharp is hopeful tourism will return. “There is such fascinating history in Egypt, and the country could really use a boost in tourism once again,” he says. “For the truly adventurous who are savvy, smart, aware and use common sense, this could be a great time to visit because prices are low and so are crowds.”
Lord agrees. “What other country can boast of the riches held inside the Egyptian Museum? The magic of the pyramids can only be understood when you stand there watching them, [and] as soon as we see a period of peace and security, Egypt will return to be one of the top tourism destinations in the world.”
Sheldon already sees a light at the end of the tunnel. The British Foreign Office “has now authorized Brits to return to Cairo, Giza, Luxor and Aswan, as well as the Red Sea resorts, so perhaps we’re getting to a new equilibrium,” he says.
After all, with 5,000 years of history, the past few years are a mere glitch in time for Egypt.
For more information, visit Egypt Tourism at egypt.travel.