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Egypt: a response to Arthur Frommer

14 September 2012

Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommer’s Travel Guides, has posted a short blog advising US citizens not to visit Egypt, because of – for want of a better name – the embassy riots. He says “the government of Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi has whipped up anti-American sentiments among the Egyptian population” and has been “silent” on the issue of violence directed agains the US Embassy in Cairo.

Frommer concludes by saying that “until…steps are taken by Egyptian officials to discourage such violence, it is clearly unsafe for Americans to visit Egypt as tourists.”

Now, first of all, Morsi had already condemned the violence before Frommer posted his blog. A report here by the AP is timed at 6.18AM ET Thursday, almost five hours before Frommer’s blog went up.

But, regardless, when Frommer conflates a violent minority with a national government, he is playing the extremists’ game for them. As much as the US government cannot be held responsible for the actions of individual filmmakers, the Egyptian government cannot be held responsible for the actions of individual protesters. Frommer should know that. And so should the people throwing rocks in Cairo.

Wiser observers than me have already called the riots “manufactured outrage”: Frommer is quite wrong if he imagines the Egyptian government “whipping up” anything. Quite the reverse: the Egyptian government, for so long the radical opposition (to Mubarak), and unused to power, has rapidly found itself threatened by an even more radical opposition – the Salafis. The Salafis are doing the whipping. And they chose the right date to do it.

And yet, as anyone who has spent any time in Egypt is aware, there’s no need to “whip up” anti-American sentiment. It is overt – and has been for years. In that regard, nothing has changed.

Frommer is right on one thing: the people hate the police. That – rather than religious outrage – is what has been driving the violence in Cairo, as a Foreign Policy editor noted yesterday, four minutes before Frommer blogged. Cairo is in a febrile state, for sure – but to imagine that the unrest is targeted against American tourists is fanciful. Citizens of any country who have a nervous disposition should probably avoid Cairo right now. For others, it’s business as usual (or, in the case of Egypt’s tourism industry, $833m down).

Cairo is one thing. But for Frommer to warn Americans away from the whole of Egypt is unreasonable and unwarranted. There is nothing to suggest that life in the deserts, the Nile tourism towns and the Red Sea resorts is anything other than normal. No warnings against travel to Egypt exist on the US State Dept website or the US Embassy in Cairo website. Is Frommer honestly saying that government travel advisories are not cautious enough?

To plant the idea that the whole of Egypt is unsafe or threatening to American tourists does Frommer’s reputation, and that of his company, no good at all.

The situation may, of course, change rapidly: today is Friday, and things in the Middle East often get out of hand on Fridays. But, at this time of writing, it sounds to me like Mr Frommer’s been watching too much TV news. Perhaps he needs to get out more.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, a friend in Cairo has tweeted to tell me “All the action is around the embassy. Two streets away you feel nothing, just normal day-to-day life.”

UPDATE 2: I am quoted in this piece by Laura Bly at USA Today.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. Nicholas Seeley permalink
    14 September 2012 1.29pm

    Right now, friends in Tahrir are now telling me anyone who looks American is getting bullied/assaulted by the crowd, esp. journalists.

    You’re absolutely right that Egyptian (and probably most Arab) anger at the US is an ongoing thing, fueled by years of frustration over policies like support for dictators, Israel, etc.

    But plenty of serious observers, including some from Egypt, have also raised real questions about how much the Morsi government is encouraging that anger — why were embassies not being guarded, why was MB organizing anti-us protests up until this morning. Some writers are saying Morsi is just following Mubarak’s playbook — using anti-american anger to distract from domestic problems. Others say that he is trying to throw bones to hardline constituents, and not be outflanked on the right by the salafis.

    Reports from Tahrir today and yesterday indicated substantial anger at the police, yes, but a majority of protesters also outraged about the film / Muslim-Arab identity issues.

    There are complexities to all these analyses — but I don’t think an MB/government role in these protests isn’t just dismissable.

  2. Nicholas Seeley permalink
    14 September 2012 1.49pm

    Now hearing Tahrir has calmed down, or possibly wasn’t all that bad to begin with … though sounds like a few people got intimidated. Hooray for Twitter rumor mill!

    But I think the larger point about MB’s double-gaming stands…

  3. 14 September 2012 1.57pm

    I live in Egypt, I’m Egyptian.
    This event should not be looked at separately from other events and current phase of egyptian politics. we have a very complicated situations and transitions. i will try to be concise and put it all in a nut shell:
    the chosen date for this is 11 SEP. So the world has to be reminded in this day that Muslims and Islam are savages. it is not a matter of Egypt and USA and Morsi and MB. there is a much larger perspective.
    i’m not a great fan of the MB, but looking at the recent appointments in the presidential palace and the government, there is a true intent of fighting corruption. therefore, only the simple minded would think that the former NDP is going to let go that easy. NDP is an empire with wealth, money, power and international relations and for sure it did not die yet.
    there are thousands of people here who would kill for a handful of dollars, they would also create all the havoc you need and attack whatever. if this is a national move supported by the government, why is it taking place only at the US Embassy?
    another observation, i’m a business man and now many of us are trying to diversify sources of income. you can not possibly believe the number of international con artists that are flocking into Egypt. OMG, there are so many of them now trying to get you involved in Forex and International events you sign up for to bring you millions, etc…. i just had one in my office on Wednesday.
    The fight against NDP and the former regime is heating up. and this is just one of many events that we would have to live through for this nation to go forward.

  4. 14 September 2012 1.58pm

    Thanks, Nick, good to hear from you. I was also hearing things about foreign journalists being harassed in Tahrir this afternoon. But, let’s face it, that’s nothing new.

    And, to stay focused on the issue here (tourism, not news-gathering), is that a reason to advise American tourists to avoid Egypt altogether? Avoid Tahrir, OK. Avoid downtown Cairo, even avoid Cairo – but the whole country? (Foreign tourists, especially in groups, now tend to stay out near the Pyramids, rather than in the downtown area, and so would be likely to experience precisely nothing of the Tahrir tension anyway.)

    Whatever the motivation for these protests – and, as you say, there may be MB right hand/left hand stuff going on – nothing substantive has changed in Egypt between last week and this week. The problem is that it may not seem that way, if all you consume is the US news media – which is what I suspect may be happening in Frommer’s case.

  5. 14 September 2012 2.01pm

    Basem, I’m very grateful to you for taking the time here. Your points are very well made.

  6. Ed the Ted permalink
    14 September 2012 2.54pm

    The everyday people of Egypt (well Upper Egypt, at least) are nothing like their Cairean brethren! They don’t have the visible international companies and NGO’s to support any kind of balance between the anti-anything and everything brigade, which have their poison spouted in some of the Mosques, and reality. But, nevertheless, they are not stupid, even if their educational opportunities are not so wide out in here the sticks, they are mainly people of goodwill, whose overriding desire is to get on making enough to feed their families.

    My wife and I have spent most of the last five years in Luxor, and never once have we been subjected to anything other than the normal hassle which everyone expects in Egypt; “Only five pounds, pasha, here pasha, only five pounds!” Nothing to get defensive or excited about!

    The slightest ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ occurrence here, warrants hundreds of column inches of scaremongering in Western newspapers. It’s truly shocking when coming from so-called civilised and educated countries!

    We’ve had many Americans staying with us, and I’m sure that they would have mentioned any unpleasantness if they had encountered it. It would seem to us non-Americans, in reading all these reports etc., that Americans really believe that their country is doing something very wrong in the world, or else why would they think that the rest of the world hates them?

    For someone of Frommer’s standing, this is unbelievable!

  7. 14 September 2012 3.38pm

    Thanks so much, Ed – valuable first-hand insight there.

  8. 14 September 2012 7.21pm

    Frustrating to say the least.. How ignorant can one be?! And to think this guy is in the travel guide business?!
    But he is not to blame alone in this.. News coverage is a major culprit… Last week I had a booking (rare these days) for an Italian couple, this week they cancelled due to what is going on in Syria.. Of course we share a border, yes, but come on!!!
    اللهم لا تحاسبنا على ما فعل السفهاء منا
    (God please don’t hold us accountable for what the ignorant of us have done)
    Thanks for another great article Matthew

  9. 14 September 2012 9.51pm

    Many thanks, Yamaan. Sympathies for the cancellation…

  10. 15 September 2012 7.39am

    2 years ago Arthur Frommer told everyone not to visit Thailand because of the protests going on.

    While he was telling people not to visit Thailand, I was in Bangkok. Other than a few blocks in the center of the city, you would have had no idea there were any protests going on. It was even more normal throughout the rest of the country.

  11. George Bazhenov permalink
    15 September 2012 5.41pm

    On the night of the embassy riot, as you aptly call it, my credit card was charged for a stay in a hotel in South Sinai. I had booked this stay because the advance purchase rate was quite attractive. It wasn’t the first time I had made a no-changes, no-cancellation booking but in the past they never actually charged me until I had showed up at the property. I think on that night somebody had an instinct to collect foreign currency before the LE went under (which didn’t happen). Might have been a coincidence of course.

    My journey begins in November, and I hope I’ll meet some Americans while I’m there.

  12. 16 September 2012 10.31pm

    You said, ” No warnings against travel to Egypt exist on the US State Dept website or the US Embassy in Cairo website.”

    I say, read the British, Australian, or New Zealand equivalent websites and you WILL see them. In fact, these official government seem to be more oriented towards the concerns of individual travellers. Moreover, are not involved in gaining personal profit from the contrary view (i.e. the writer of this blog).

  13. 17 September 2012 6.16am

    @Gary – point well made, thanks.

    @George – now that’s interesting. I wonder if your instinct was right? Let us know, whenever you get there…

    @Truth – What I wrote was correct. The idea that I am advising people to ignore ill-informed warnings because I somehow profit from their travel is laughable.

  14. Youssef permalink
    17 September 2012 5.54pm

    Frommer is an outdated idiot. Police have been on my AMERICAN group’s ass like a Nepali leech for the past 10 days as we’ve traversed Cairo, the deserts of Bahariya, Dakhla, and Kharga. Police we ready for us in Assiut through Sohag and down to Luxor. Tourist life here is no different than it’s been in my past 10 years in the country. All that’s changed is nobody is coming anymore and we have the sites all to ourselves, save a few inappropriately attired Italians. Suck it, Frommer.

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