Is the Middle East dangerous?

By | December 11th, 2001

Q: I am scheduled to take a trip to Egypt in January. How dangerous is travel abroad right now? I understand there is anti-American sentiment in that region of the world, but that does not concern me as much as actual danger of physical violence against Americans. Your insight into this would be welcome.

— Scott Anderson

A: You’ve got every reason to be concerned about traveling to the Middle East at a time like this. All you have to do is turn on your TV to find disturbing images of anti-American protests in the region, and it would be easy to assume that any country in that part of the world would present a danger to Western visitors.

But Egypt? Maybe not. Let’s forget the Luxor massacre of four years ago, in which terrorists killed 57 tourists and wounded 25 others. The Egyptian government took measures to boost security at airports, international hotels, and historical attractions throughout the country, and there have been no more attacks. “Effective police operations in the past few years and the heightened security posture throughout Egypt have made it more difficult for extremist groups to conduct terrorist operations,” the U.S. Department of State reports. “However, the threat has not been eliminated.”

The Canadian government, which is known for its frank assessments of foreign security risks, also stops short of telling its citizens to avoid Egypt. It agrees that although there have been no terrorist attacks against tourists since 1997, “the potential for further violence exists.” What does that mean? Visitors are advised to note that tourist buses can be targets, although trains are generally safe (the only exception is the stretch between Minya and Qena, where both terrorist and criminal activity is reported). Canada also encourages travelers to undertake a trip between Cairo and Luxor or Aswan by air.

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“There remains a small risk from unexploded landmines in some desert and coastal areas, notably the Mediterranean shore, the Western Desert, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Western shore of the Gulf of Suez. Visitors should follow local advice, especially if traveling off-road,” the report concludes.

Landmines notwithstanding, it would be a mistake to bake Egypt in the same metaphorical pie with Iraq, Afghanistan, and other rogue states. Anyone who does is ignorant. Like other parts of the world, the Middle East is a diverse tapestry of cultures, beliefs – and security risks. To fear traveling to the entire region because of a single event (like the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., which took place half a world away, or the Luxor incident, which took place almost half a decade ago) is as unnecessary as trying to cancel a villa rental in Italy for fear of anti-American violence, as one of this column’s readers recently tried to do.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t be careful. For example, I’d steer clear of any demonstrations and stay away from the Egypt-Gaza border area. I’d also keep a low profile and avoid wearing clothes that would tag you as a visitor, particularly a Western tourist. But these are common-sense precautions that a reasonably prudent traveler to any country – not just Egypt – would take (you can substitute the Gaza comment for a dangerous area in any other country).

Keep a close eye on the news and surf over to the Egyptian government’s ministry of foreign affairs page to find out if the situation has changed. (Note: better brush up on your Arabic if you want to read the whole site.)

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Stay informed. Which is to say, be careful. But don’t be paranoid.

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