A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Future of Tourism in Egypt if Islamists Have Their Way: Is There One?

This young lady (photo courtesy The Arabist) is quite fetching to be sure, in what is sometimes dubbed a "burkini," but is she really the future of tourism in Egypt? Will American, British, French, Italian and Israeli tourists (I won't even bring up the Germans) be content to dress accordingly on Egypt's beaches (perhaps, since in some scenarios the males will all be somewhere totally separate), while sipping nothing stronger than lemonade, drawn solely to learn about the ancient culture, where the statues of pharaohs and their queens may be covered with cloth to protect their modesty, while the statues of gods and goddesses are hidden because they're graven idols? And where couples may be asked for marriage certificates when checking into hotels? In a country where tourism is a major source of hard currency and where the tourist infrastructure is extensive, it seems unlikely, But some of the Islamists who are feeling giddy with victory in the first phase of elections are talking about creating a "sin-free" tourism sector, banning not just alcohol and bikinis, but mixed bathing and perhaps more. Some Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, are trying to downplay the idea,  and given the country's economic plight, torpedoing the tourist industry hardly seems wise. The Islamist who was recently quoted as saying "They came to see the ancient civilization, not to drink alcohol," may misunderstand why people go to resorts like Sharm al-Sheikh or Hurghada, both of which are sorely lacking in ancient monuments, and  known purely as beach resorts.

Sharm al-Sheikh, for Now
Now, I think that that paragon of journalism The Daily Mail is going too far in proclaiming "The end of Sharm al-Sheikh?," and I'm sure Egypt's hotel industry will weigh in on these issues, As will the ruling military, which, I believe, may have some investments in the tourist sector.

In danger of extinction?
It's true, of course, that Hurghada and Sharm al-Sheikh are almost utterly alien to most Egyptians who haven't been there and who couldn't afford them anyway; the tourists aren't wearing bikinis in Egyptian villages or downtown Cairo. (So don't share this link with any rabid Islamists. It's a collection of YouTube videos of bikini contests in Hurghada.)

Cover up, Isis! You too, Horus!
The talk about censoring or otherwise concealing ancient Egyptian monuments seems equally counterproductive. If people are coming only for the ancient culture and not the beaches, are you going to hide the ancient culture? It naturally and disturbingly calls to mind the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Since Egyptian gods and goddesses tend to be wearing loincloths and headdresses and not much in between (hey, it gets hot there in summer, and there was no A/C),  I suppose it is inevitable that some people are going to want to cover them up, even if they weren't already idols to begin with. Yet even the classic Isis/Horus madonna-and-child at left, extremely well-crafted as it is, will be taboo.

The cognitive dissonance between "they should come for our ancient culture" and "the ancient culture is pagan and evil" is going to be a problem as well.

Not too long ago Zeinobia printed this cartoon on her blog, which nails it down pretty well: the man — judging by the dome I think he represents Parliament — is shackled with balls and chains representing Egypt's problems (food issues, unemployment, poverty, abuse of women, etc.), and he has visibly empty pockets, but he is shouting about getting rid of bikinis.

They'll be ok with this though:  no bikinis here.

No Bikinis Here; Just Belts or Bronze Age G-Strings

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