A trip to Sinai puts the security situation in perspective.
Stop the presses: I went to Sinai on a commercial bus last weekend and nothing happened. I took the overnight East Delta bus out, did a couple days of diving, and came back to Cairo on the day bus. It was a complete non-event.
With that statement, I’ve just broken the first rule of media. We don’t talk about non-events. We talk about things that happen, significant things. But when I got back to the office, I realized what I saw as a non-event was significant, at least to some of my co-workers.
“Is it safe?” one asked.
Such a familiar question, but such a different source. Normally it’s American friends and family who have never been here who think I’m living in the line of fire. This time, the people questioning my sanity were Egyptian.
I feigned ignorance: “Sure, why wouldn’t it be?”
“Because the whole country is not safe now,” she replied.
She has a point. It seems every time you look at the local news in Arabic or English, you read about a bombing, shooting or kidnapping, usually targeting military or security forces. In Cairo, Friday’s daytime socializing seems to have decreased dramatically, as people stay close to home until the inevitable protests and anticipated attacks are done. And Sinai is a hotbed of militant activity. It’s mostly in North Sinai, but South Sinai has had its share of bombings and shootings, most notably February’s tourist bus attack in Taba.
All legitimate events, so we — the media — talk about them. A lot. And in the process, we as people absorb something of a bubble mentality: It’s not safe outside our bubbles, so we’re not going out there… at least not very far and certainly not near anything that could be a target. Things like a public bus traveling through every security checkpoint from Suez to Sharm El-Sheikh and up to Dahab.
So why I was doing it? I missed the fish. I live in a country with the some of the world’s best dive sites, and I’d been out of the water too long. Magazine deadlines kept me in the capital over the recent holidays, so I took a four-day, post-holiday weekend to visit my favorite diving town.
Yes, I could have flown. A round-trip ticket to Sharm costs as much as two days of diving and three nights accommodation, I’d still have to take a bus up to Dahab, and I would have had to miss a day of diving because you can’t dive 24 hours before a flight. That kind of defeats my purpose, which is to spend my time and money underwater.
Dahab, which doesn’t have direct airport access and is accessible only by bus or car, is especially hurting right now. I did see a couple of organized groups of Russians doing to what I’d call the “Bedouin sampler” tour, complete with a videographer recording the snorkeling outing on the beach. Mostly, though, Dahab is being barely sustained by veterans like me, who keep coming back because we’ve got connections with the people there.
The people in Dahab had more pressing concerns last weekend than security threats. “Careful on the bus,” one friend cautioned me on Facebook before I left. “Supposed to be heavy rain in South Sinai tonight and Thursday am.”
Sure enough, if there were any event to speak of, it would be the Ras Sudr police stopping all traffic at the checkpoint because of road flooding. We sat there from about 3:30 to 7:30am, and I slept through most of it. If there were ever a target of opportunity for terrorists, this was it: a logjam of full buses, trucks and cars parked at a checkpoint for hours. But nothing happened.
I find it a little ironic that every year thousands of people die in road accidents here in Egypt, yet we haven’t been afraid to get in our cars and go. Even as a pedestrian, I feel like I’m taking my life into my own shoes every time I step out into a Cairo street, but I keep walking. Now the idea of militant attacks, which for the most part have avoided targeting civilians outright, has people thinking twice about how and where they go places.
To be honest, after this weekend getaway, I still don’t have a good answer for “Is it safe?” Things are happening, and according to official figures, nearly 500 people have been killed in militant attacks since July. Now, you can internalize every media report and think, “There’s a terrorist behind every traffic light and I could be next.” Or you could think, “That’s 500 out of 85 million. I’ve got better odds of getting poisoned by a Lionfish.”
Everyone has their own level of tolerance for risk, and if someone feels better sticking closer to home, then that’s the right decision for them. For me, well, I’ll keep taking my chances with the Lionfish. et