Is Egypt safe? Here’s my honest opinion based on more than a decade of living in Cairo and travelling around the country.
I’m sitting at a dinner party in a Phoenix suburb with a group of friends. We’re putting together a jigsaw puzzle and sipping wine.
Suddenly a friend bursts in late, muttering apologies.
“The traffic was awful! There was a shooting on my street and the cops closed off the block,” he explains. “I was stuck there for a half hour.”
“That’s so awful,” we answer.
There’s some empathy and concern, but after a half hour the topic is forgotten.
This is Scottsdale, after all. A good neighborhood where sometimes crazy stuff just happens.
Now picture this:
The exact same people are considering a winter getaway to Egypt.
“Is it safe?” they ask me with kind but concerned expressions.
They bring up headlines from a decade ago, or random reports from neighboring countries that surely indicate the entire region is unstable.
Why the double standard?
As Americans, we deal with school shootings, gun violence, police brutality and everything else that goes on in the states.
But that’s all somehow less terrible than Arab violence (Because it’s more familiar? Because it’s more white?)
Nevermind that you’re far more likely to get shot, robbed or raped in the US than in Egypt.
What’s far more compelling are the movies that depict turbaned Arabs, with Russian machine guns and flowing galabiyas, jumping out from random orange stalls shouting “Allahu Akbar.”
Then they whisk the naive little Westerner off to an undisclosed location, where the Westerner waits to be rescued by Mark Wahlberg.
Is Egypt safe? What I really think
I’m a Polish-American woman who’s lived in Cairo for the past decade and counting.
And I’m still amazed at the blatant racism in these movies and how much they shape people’s perception of the Arab world.
And I find it ironic how Westerners from trigger-happy states and grizzly urban capitals are so fearful of a country with a much lower crime rate than theirs.
So here’s the short answer: yes Egypt is safe.
But let’s ask a far more interesting question: why is it regarded as dangerous?
And it’s an important point to consider in the post George Floyd world, where black children still get shot for ringing the wrong doorbell and where parts of Europe are descending into fascism.
The answer is orientalism.
Orientalism is a way of seeing the Arab world that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the US.
Orientalism means regarding Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized and sometimes dangerous.
In other words, you can accept mass shootings in New York as part of brutish modern-day life. But you’re not going to cancel your Brooklyn city break over it.
But if there’s any kind of unsavory event in Egypt? Forget it, you’ll just take your beach vacation in Spain.
Because things like crime rates and statistics don’t really matter. It doesn’t matter that Egypt is safer than the major US and European capitals.
What matters is how any kind of violence is more terrifying when it’s done by non-white and non-Christian perpetrators.
Fear of the unknown
Consider how your own reality appears to an outside observer.
Armed vikings attacking the state capital, public lynchings and presidents who brag about grabbing women by the crotch all paint a frightening picture.
I’ve been away from the US for so many years that I’m no longer accustomed to that brand of crazy.
And there are years when I go back to the US for Christmas and I imagine myself getting shot at a random grocery store because a man tells me to “smile” and I tell him “you first.”
People have been shot for fall less.
And it’s funny how quickly we begin to fear what’s no longer familiar.
Though I’m not writing from a place of enlightenment. Nor am I saying the Arab world is perfect.
And it’s normal to have concerns when you’re travelling.
But the Arab world is held up to a much higher scrutiny than anywhere else in the world (besides maybe Africa), despite the fact that actual crime rates in Egypt are very low.
Though sometimes I think we enjoy holding up our own culture as more civilized and less violent. Even when the actual crime statistics say otherwise.
Because orientalism makes us feel superior. It gives us a common enemy and it fosters gratitude for our own righteous leaders.
Maybe we don’t have health insurance and we’re still paying off our Toyota. But at least we’re free (unless we’re black or pulling into the wrong driveway).
Living in Cairo: a realistic perspective
I’ve had friends visit me in Cairo and tell me they didn’t know we had Starbucks or McDonald’s here.
In another case that I still find unbelievable, a visitor to Cairo was surprised to learn that Egyptians ride cars and not camels.
I know that not everyone has the opportunity to travel. I also know that content about everyday life in the Arab world is hardly prime time material.
But imagine what it’s like to live here and face these unabashed questions. Imagine defending the people you live with as human, and the city you live in as modern.
It puts you in a demeaning position of having to defend your lifestyle. And that soon gets boring – and at some point you stop caring.
And it’s no wonder people get tired of explaining themselves. Especially when some Westerners enjoy their bigotry because they like the superiority it brings.
When friends tell me “You have Victoria’s Secret in Cairo?,” they’re saying they thought Egypt was some kind of medieval backwater. Or, what’s stranger, that Arab women can’t possibly be interested in being sexy.
And while we all live and learn, it’s often helpful to flip the script. How would you feel if an Egyptian asked you (as an American) if you live in a trailer and eat squirrels?
Better not mention how surprising it is to find skyscrapers and modern shopping malls in the Arab world and in Africa.
Silence is sometimes golden. Pauses can be used to reflect how we can become less orientalist and more rational in our worldview.
And why we hold certain worldviews in the first place.
The “severity” of Islam
I once took a British friend to visit Cairo’s iconic Al-Azhar Mosque (above) and we sat people-watching as we waited for the sunset prayer.
Kids played with a rubber ball and ran through the courtyard as women took selfies and gossiped.
My friend gazed out at the scene and said, “I didn’t expect this. I always thought mosques were very severe places.”
I took another friend to a crowded cafe in Khan el Khalili. We were sipping on mint tea when the evening call to prayer came on.
Everybody at the cafe kept on keeping on, like they will.
My friend giggled and said, “Are they all going to hell now?”
I never understood the motive of such silly jokes.
But then I realized: situations that show the normal, everyday side of Islam are strange and incomprehensible to some Westerners.
Because any Muslim that’s not a bearded, frowning and crazy zealot doesn’t match the Hollywood image of an Arab.
So normal situations become puzzling or comic.
This is also why some Westerners find it mystifying when an Egyptian has a glass of wine with their dinner. An Arab drinking alcohol suggests a certain cultural nuance that they’ve never considered.
In another true story, a friend of mine was surprised when she saw a nikabi woman having coffee in Dubai with an unveiled woman.
“They were friends and it didn’t seem like they had a problem with each other,” she said.
Shocking, isn’t it.
Humans of the Middle East
The popular Instagram account Humans of New York once hit the streets of the Middle East for a series to document some of the region’s everyday people.
And just like in Manhattan, each photo of the person was accompanied by a quote from them (sometimes deeply personal, other times light and irrelevant.)
In the comments section, under the photos of various Middle Easterners, dozens of Westerners left comments about how this series has really opened their eyes.
“Oh a shopping center in Iraq, I never knew! Seriously this woman in Amman is just like me!”
People were blown away that the “humans of the Middle East” were so very similar to them.
That they were, in fact, human.
How did the Middle Easterners feel reading all of those comments?
They weren’t flattered that the West finally acknowledged their humanity. They weren’t thrilled to read that somebody just realized an Afghani man could be so relatable.
Of course they were offended.
Who wouldn’t be?
Shy Muslim women and other stereotypes
All Egyptian women are different with various personalities.
But after a decade of interacting with Egyptian women – or at least the ones who speak a bit of English – I can confidently say that many are far removed from the submissive, obedient female stereotypes.
If anything, they’re the opposite.
There are quiet and introverted Egyptian women. But culturally they’re known as lively, outgoing and loud. A bit like how Italians are often regarded.
Just sit in a cafe for awhile among young people and you’ll see.
And while Egyptian women face a higher level of misogyny than many US and European counterparts, they’re far from the blushing tea servers of Hollywood movies.
A goodwill ambassador
People often say that my blog shows a more realistic view of everyday life in Cairo.
And I know not all Westerners will get to see the Arab world with their own eyes. So I’m happy to clear up some misconceptions.
But it’s also sad how much Orientalism I still encounter. And I know that some people will never get over it because they enjoy their perceived supremacy.
But I can say this: Egypt is perfectly safe and that’s my honest expat opinion.
Take it as knowledge gleamed from more than a decade of living in Egypt and travelling the country from the Delta to Nubia.
Safety in Egypt: Frequently Asked Questions
Is Egypt safe for female tourists?
Egypt is pretty safe for female travelers in my experience. Crime rates are much lower than in the US and Europe and tourist sites are well protected. That being said, you might get the occasional catcall.
I used to get catcalls around downtown when I first came to Egypt a decade ago. Now I can’t remember the last time I got harassed. I’m older, I don’t look like a tourist, I don’t spend much time at the tourist sites, who knows.
Though I recently took a tour around Egypt with an American group and none of the women experienced any harassment.
Catcalls are annoying, but they’re nothing you should worry about too much.
It is safe to go out in Cairo at night?
Cairo has a relatively low crime rate with some petty theft but very little violent crime.
The city really comes alive at night and it’s a great time to experience Cairo’s street food and urban life. But like with any big city, stay alert as you walk through crowded areas and keep your belongings guarded.
I’m a solo female traveler. Where should I stay in Cairo?
For solo female travelers, I always recommend Zamalek for wandering, chic cafes and great shopping. It’s one of the best places to stay in Cairo, and great in the evening for street food, pubs and concerts.
Zamalek is an upscale and very foreigner-friendly neighborhood where lots of expats live. But it’s still authentic at the same time.
If you want something a bit leafier and quiet, head to Maadi – another nice suburb along the Nile with a great boutique hotel and pretty AirBnBs.
What should I be careful of in Egypt?
Use Uber or Careem when travelling around the city and avoid the white street taxis, which are known for rigging their meters, overcharging tourists and other drama.
Lots of tourists complain about getting ripped off at the pyramids. My advice is to skip the camel rides! They’re cruel to animals and not worth the drama over prices (I don’t recommend animal exploitation or zoos anywhere in the world).
If you’re visiting Khan el Khalili, then focus on sightseeing the amazing mosques, Ottoman-era home and hidden gems. I have a few favorite spots to shop in Khan el Khalili, but in general don’t stress over the haggling and skip the Made in China kitsch. There are lots of amazing boutiques for shopping in Cairo with clearly marked prices and handmade souvenirs.
Are Egyptian people friendly?
Egyptians are very friendly and always eager to help – especially when you’re a tourist.
Take some time to get to know some Egyptians – and not just the tour guides, sales people and waiters that you’ll come across on your trip.
Because if you visit only the tourist sites in Egypt, then you’ll only get to know the people who work in the tourism industry whose job it is to sell you things.
So get off the beaten path and throw some Cairo hidden gems into your itinerary to see more of the city’s real, everyday life.