Tuesday, October 27, 2015

It's Been a Year Since I left You

One year ago today, I left Egypt.

However, I don’t feel that I left the country behind. With my new job, I’ve been reporting on Egypt possibly even more than when I lived there.

In my new location I’m surrounded by either Egyptians or expats that I once knew in Cairo. “Is anyone even left in Cairo,” said one of my colleagues a few months ago when I mentioned I was having dinner with an old friend. And my Facebook newsfeed reminds me on a regular basis that even more are headed this way.

I remember when other expats left Egypt and shortly after their departure, all they could talk about were the good times. It was as though there were never any negatives at all to living in a country that the word “intense” doesn’t even remotely portray. But it hasn’t been like that for me.

Sure there are some things that I miss such as hanging out at cafes throughout the night during Ramadan, the man sleeping in the drink refrigerator just to cool down and certain people. Am I itching to live there again?


I now live in a country where people complain over everything. On my building’s Facebook page, one woman posted how she couldn’t tolerate the garbage collectors making so much noise at 6 am. All I could think was how lucky we were to actually have people collecting garbage.

In Egypt, street sweepers simply rake trash from one side of the street to the opposite side. Back and forth. Repeat. They depend on regular citizens to give baksheesh (tips) for their livelihood as the government doesn’t pay much. So what is the incentive to ever actually do something with the trash?

Even if there was an incentive - where would the trash go? The large bin? I can count on one hand how many times the large trash bins were emptied on Road 206 in Maadi as well as by Burger Joint near the Grand Mall.

I no longer need to call an electrician every two days because of a faulty hot water heater. When I first moved into my building, I didn’t get much hot water. I talked to the building’s management and immediately someone came up, adjusted the settings (they were initially on an environmentally-friendly setting) and voila! There was no IBM action (insha’Allah - God willing, bokra - tomorrow or ma3lesh - whatever). It was done within 10 minutes.

I have continuous power, but more importantly, I have an internet speed that actually loads a page within seconds rather than TE Data's load time of 20 minutes or longer. Forget about Game of Throne nights that took me all day to download the latest episode - I now binge watch whatever I want whenever I want. It’s a dream come true.

I remember that when I would leave Maadi alone to meet friends in Zamalak. What an ordeal! I remember the nervousness I would have each time, but refusing to allow the change in Egypt to keep me confined to my small area. It was such a production and to have friends that lived in Heliopolis still bring me home if we stayed out too late simply because it wasn’t safe. To go out at night now, I can wear whatever my heart desires. I don’t have to make sure I have a trusted driver lined up. I don’t have to gear up for a fight or negotiation over the fare as it’s all regulated.

I promised myself when I left that I would never forget the little things because I didn’t want to become one of those insufferable, spoiled expats who complain profusely over luxuries..

Egypt has personality and don’t think for one instance that I’ve forgotten. I miss the adventures - which I don’t feel my new home will ever be able to compare. I miss going to downtown to Bulaa’ on a Friday morning sifting through various clothing materials. I miss the opportunity to arrive in a new area within Cairo and finding a surprise at every turn. I miss riding up and down the corniche, crossing the Qasr El Nil bridge and barking at people. Yes - I know it’s strange, but it was awesome how everyone on that bridge would start barking and laughing at the same time. I miss those personalities.

Egypt will always have a special place in my heart and I’m certain that I will go back from time to time. But make no mistake, Egypt isn’t what it used to be and I don’t know if it will ever get back. I do still have hope that it will get better. I have to.

So here’s to the good times, the bad times and the memories. Also know that if you live or have lived in Egypt, you will find someone who shared time in that country everywhere you go in the world. It is like a hub of sorts and you’ll also find that you are drawn to those people. You will complain, but mostly laugh at "all things Egypt".

Egypt grabs hold of you and never really lets go. But it was my time to leave, and I have no regrets.

Although blurry, that is actually Egypt's president El Sisi photobombing my selfie

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Letters from Egypt: My Very Own Expiration Date

After nearly 6.5 years in Egypt, I am now getting ready to say goodbye. It’s strange. When I first arrived, I remember meeting a woman that had lived here for two years. I asked the question we all get asked, “How do you like it?” She responded, “Everyone has an expiration date.”

I’ve always carried that with me, and honestly, I think my expiry date came about a while ago. Being ready to leave is one thing, and naively enough I thought it would make it easier. Prior to Egypt, the longest I’d ever lived somewhere was four years in New York City. I was not ready to leave. I loved everything about NY sans my job and even thought I’d always return to that same neighborhood in Brooklyn. The opportunity to move to Egypt first came about in 2007, but I declined. When it came around for the second time a year later in 2008, I knew that it was meant to be.

I’ve been met with many obstacles in Egypt, but as I’ve repeated several times – including on this blog – that Egypt is a very magical place. It is not an easy place to live and anyone that tells you otherwise is a fool. It can be a very lonely place (among other things) and for a single girl, those difficulties are heightened substantially. Amid the challenges, there have been a lot of good times. I thought that it was hard to leave NY only because I wasn’t ready. I thought leaving Egypt would be so easy because I’ve been ready for over a year to say “Peace out cub scout!” It’s not.

This morning I saw a “New Member Orientation” being held at a local community center in Maadi. I watched as all the new expats shuffled through, bright eyed and excited. I looked at my friend and said, “Give it a month – that glow will disappear and you’ll just see them walking around with their heads down kicking trash mumbling to themselves about how they hate it.” And you know what – it will happen. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t grow to love certain elements.

You end up loving the sense of community that you have by walking down the street. Every morning I go to my favorite coffee shop and on the way, I ring my bike bell at all of the kiosk and flower shop workers. Each morning without fail they all scream out, “Hey hey MADAM!” Walking into the community place that houses my coffee shop you immediately see a group of friends that pull over a chair for you to join. I don’t even have to order my coffee, it’s ready as soon as the employees see my face.

Grocery shopping at my local favorites is always a treat. I pop by the meat and cheese section and it’s like dinner at the deli. I’m trying everything from various sandwich meats/cold cuts to numerous chunks of cheese. Going to my produce stand with Ali pulling out all sorts of new items, opening up a watermelon right there on the spot for me to try to make sure it’s good, packing up the bike for the ride home, etc.

I was at a party this weekend and we were all joking about our “retro” lives. It is like all of the stories that our parents used to tell us about (or grandparents) and we’re able to live in it. I smoke in my office which reminds me of the old TV show Lou Grant (a spin-off from the Mary Tyler Moore Show). The entire newsroom was filled with smoke. Sure it’s not healthy, but it’s hilarious none the less. The cars that we’re sometimes forced to take that are literally from the 60s, and never quite knowing if you’re going to make it to the destination alive and not because of a wreck but because the gasoline fumes are so strong. Or even the wrench used in the place of the actual lever to roll up a car window. Great stories.

Another amazing characteristic of Egypt that I absolutely L-O-V-E is how giving everyone is. One of the biggest things is if you tell someone you like something, they immediately respond: “It’s yours” and will often try to give it to you. I love riding the train to Alexandria and seeing all the farmers working along the Nile with my seat neighbor opening breakfast and immediately offering me some of his/her food. That is genuine kindness. It’s something that I want to carry with me. It’s funny how at home we’re taught to never take food from strangers, but the simple action of a taxi driver offering me some of his chipsy – a man who doesn’t have much – is heartwarming.

If you had asked me back in 2006 where I saw myself in five years, I never would have said anything close to where I am now. When I broke the news the other day about my departure, I was shocked at all of the messages, calls, emails and face-to-face reactions. Obviously I’ve built some very strong friendships here in this time. I mean – we’ve been through it going from the 2011 revolution, the first so-called democratically-held elections, a military coup (it was, by definition, a coup – thanks), more elections all going back to what it was when I first arrived: a military leader. I have officially seen a full circle in Egyptian leadership.

So in my last month, I want to document some of my favorite places and people to give you a better sense of what has kept me going through the frustrations you will undoubtedly meet when faced with a new country and culture. Most importantly, I hope for any of you that are living in Egypt or thinking of moving here to have the same memorable experience I’ve been blessed to be a part of. Thanks for all the support and memories.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Rolling Blackouts and Why

Uff – it’s bad. It’s the worst power outages that we’ve faced so far.

There are rolling blackouts throughout Cairo with reports of the same in Aswan; however, my contacts in Alexandria say they remain unaffected. In addition to the electricity problems, many areas are also facing water shortages (parts of Maadi and Heliopolis have been confirmed).

The Electricity Minister Ahmed Shaker told ONTV channel that the massive outage was due to technical problems. The Egyptian Electric Holding Co. (EEHC) said that at 6:15 am, a technical malfunction took place at a 500-kilowatt (kW) power transformer station. However, my first outage began at 1 am. Another friend located nearby had a power outage at 5 am. And many of us woke up around 7 am in a pool of sweat continuing without power for over two hours. These times were long before the so-called “technical malfunction”. In addition, it’s important to note that 500 kW is nothing compared to the power generated by other stations like West Cairo power station at 300 megawatts (MW) and Cairo North II generating 750 MW.

I’ve written a blog before on why Egypt is facing the power crisis. Some of you may think that it’s a result from instability and other economic downturns since the 2011 revolution, but that isn’t true. First of all, Egypt generates 86% of its power via natural gas – which newsflash, is in short supply. Even in 2010, the country faced a natural gas growth rate estimated at about 8% annually with locally produced natural gas only coming in at 6% annually. This is coupled with fuel subsidies that were a drain on the economy all the way around. Despite the government’s recent move to decrease the fuel subsidies, it will take a while to correct the problem that was growing even during the Mubarak era.

Read my previous blog to get some more insight into Egypt’s power generation sector, and also, here is one of the best articles I’ve read from an Egyptian on the subject: “Why We Need Price Hikes”. The only problem with his article is that Egypt’s problem doesn’t derive from a need to expand the national grid. It results mainly from the inability for its natural gas supplies to meet local demand (as well as its inability to diversify and use different feedstock for power generation).

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Behind the Asian Knockoff Scene

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which is possible for some of you), you can’t help but notice the Asian influx coming onto the Cairo scene.

I feel like the Chinese government monitors the entire world with satellites set up to sound off an alert when turmoil is striking an area, country or region. So with the Arab Spring, it would only be fitting to see Chinese companies piling in to continue their standard business model: high-risk investments.

Most recently, I’ve started speaking with a Chinese woman who has lived in Cairo on/off for three years. She moved here with her boyfriend who was hired at a marble company, and has two other Chinese flat mates who venture downtown every day to sell mobile phones. The phones range in price from the cheapest being LE 150 to the most expensive running between LE 600-800 (around $21 to $112 at an exchange of 7.15), which is mostly based on how well you can negotiate. These phones include Samsung and Nokia knockoffs, and you can find them located in a flea market near Attaba.

Attaba is the area within Cairo that is well known for its electronics. You can literally find anything there as well as jail breaking various electronic devices. Even Cairo 360 is dubbing this place the “Egyptian Chinatown”. The website describes the particular area within Attaba, Abdel Aziz Street, known for its mobile phones and electronics. I have been to this area a time or two, and I have to say, I’m not itching to get back. I went with a friend looking for a reasonably-priced television and I’ve also been to get my phone unlocked. As Cairo 360 points out, since the area is considered a “main supplier to all electronic retailers in Cairo, prices are cheaper.” However, if you are obviously foreign, it may not always work out in your favor. And one other point of interest from the article: “Also, be advised against buying a second-hand mobile phone here, as some items on sale are likely to have been stolen or are faulty.

A segment of the Chinese community have a system set up. They head to this area everyday with their working hours usually teetering around 10 am until 7 pm. They get many of the phones for wholesale around LE 100 ($7.15), and usually at least try to pull in a LE 50 profit ($6.99). Lin* told me that her roommates make more than three times here by selling these phones than they would back in the mainland. She said, “It’s not easy to find a job in China, and difficult to find a good salary.” She went on to say that the average salary with a degree plus speaking English is about ¥3,000 a month (or around LE 3,490 or $488). Without an education or skills, the average salary is ¥1,800 (LE 2,094 or $293).

Like many others, Lin’s roommates are here on one-month visas, which cost ¥1,100 (LE 1,249 or $175) and are valid for 30 days. The roommates’ visas are currently expired, but the risk does not stop them from continuing their daily black market sales. I asked Lin what would happen if they were caught. She told me that one friend had been caught by police selling the items. Because he wasn’t able to pay the bribe (backsheesh), the police sent him to the Chinese embassy and he was deported. Another friend traveled to Israel via the desert and undetected. Upon arriving in Israel, he was captured by police and promptly deported. These “illegals” never had to pay a fine, their airline ticket nor receive any backlash from the Chinese government upon return. Lin added that she had another friend that had stayed illegally in Egypt for seven years. When she went to leave the airport, Egyptian officials only made her pay a fine of LE 300 ($42) which is crazy considering that even just three months past your visa expiration date, officials charge LE 200 ($28).

But what has to be the craziest part of all of this: Chinese nationals who are deported for illegal actions such as selling knockoff mobile phones can return back to Egypt after 15 days.

*name changed 


By the way, for those of you that didn’t get a chance to grab CSA’s Oasis magazine to read my “Cairo Cabbin” article, I’ll update this with the link (or you can head over to CSA, grab a coffee from Greco and get your free issue). Also, see an updated blog (hyperlinked) as the article was completed prior to the fuel subsidy decrease which affected the price of taxis. As always, please feel free to message me should you have any questions or comments.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Water Outages will NOT Affect Most of Maadi

Yes, most of you will still be able to shower and bowabs will still be able to water sand.

People are getting in a panic hearing that various news sources have reported water outages in areas inside of Cairo, particularly those residents in Maadi, starting today from 6 pm until tomorrow morning at 6 am.

The story can only be found in Arabic from one site, Almogaz. You will not find the story in other well-known publications like Al Ahram or Al Masry Al Youm. Considering that it’s nearly 3 pm and the scheduled outages are supposed to get underway in three hours, I would have thought it would be in more places.

Almogaz’s story listed areas that are supposed to be affected by a 12-hour water loss, and you will notice that it is not all of Maadi. In fact, the only areas in Maadi to be affected are around Palestine Street (where Bandar Mall and Chili’s is located) and Bassateen (an area near Palestine St. but going all the way out to the Autostrad). Bassateen is the area before you take the Nasr Street exit from the Autostrad. Another area mentioned that is considered on the border of Hadayak Maadi and Dar es Salaam is Faida Kamel. While Manshet Sadat was also mentioned, I have no clue where this is and it seems no one else does either. 

And if you don’t know where it is, then that means you don’t live there. Now if you live in the areas that are reportedly going to lose water, take the precaution of filling up your bathtub and taking showers/other water-required activities before 6 pm. Otherwise, please make sure that you let others know the supposed targeted areas. Again, this news source is not well known so take it for what it’s worth. Better to be prepared than not.

Onto areas in Nasr City that will be affected as per the article:
  • Zahraa Medinaat Nasr
  • Haya el Asher
  • Near Ahly Club
  • Esbet el Hagana
  • Zones 1, 6 and 8

Also covered in the water loss and uncertain areas include Gabel el Ahmar and Zone 6 and 7.

Katamaya residents:
The article says that you will have water, but it will be very little. The Third Settlement will also have little water.

All of this is the result of an important pipe/tube that broke in the Al Fostat Potable Water Treatment Plant.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Alcohol Licenses under New Government

Between continuous raids confiscating alcohol from various popular expat hangouts and other restaurants discontinuing their libation services (TGI Fridays and Fish Market), places where you could grab a cold one after a long day of work seemed to dwindle once Mohamed Morsi was elected president. But now with Sisi in power, it appears to be easier to acquire licensing for alcohol sales.

The first thing that you need to understand about Egypt is that everything is paid via bribes or the local term, backsheesh. This has not changed since Mubarak’s era, going into Morsi’s brief stint and now into Sisi’s rule. What did change was that by paying Mubarak’s cronies under the table, places were still “mostly” secure from being swindled for more funds. However, with Morsi in power, police would conduct raids, confiscate imported spirits and impose a hefty fine. Sounds perfectly legal – and that part is. What is not so legal is that after paying the fine, if you wanted the alcohol back, the police would determine how much per bottle. Once you paid that and alcohol was returned (or you were allowed to purchase more), you were raided again. Repeat process until you run out of money. There are other intricacies involved, but I’m trying to keep it short(er).

Now often times the places selling imported spirits (e.g. Jack Daniels, Absolut Vodka, Jim Beam, etc) were acquiring these bottles from the black market so it isn’t as though they were completely following the rules themselves.

Wait, there are rules in Egypt? I digress.

The alcohol black market consists of people working at various Duty Frees (DFs) throughout the country. When you first arrive, you are allowed four bottles from the airport DF or three outside the airport. Officials keep track of how many people opt not to use their DF, and those are the bottles sold on the black market. Jack Daniels is arguably one of the most popular types of spirits in Egypt, and if you’ll notice, it’s been hard to get Jack at DFs for over a year.

When I first arrived in 2008, you could contact certain people to deliver a bottle of imported spirits, including right to the front door of a nightclub (talk about top-notch service). The cost for a one-liter bottle of Jack at that time was LE 250 (exchange from back then would have been about $42). I hear current day costs is upwards to LE 400 or around $58 (running around $25 at DF). Black market spirits were also available in various places, but mostly kept hush hush. For instance, another place if you were desperate was a Christian deli that had bottles in a back room, but they only sold to foreigners.

New places are cropping up all over Cairo, and one particular restaurant that just opened in Maadi told me that after Ramadan they would allow alcohol. I asked if they had received the license and they said, “Yes, but only to allow people to bring in their own bottles. We will not supply for now.” This particular restaurant hasn’t even been open a month, but already has the license to allow others to bring in their own bottles – which, by the way, most people opt to do when going to nightclubs because a) no one really wants local booze and b) it’s much cheaper.

I inquired as to how they were able to get this license so quickly. The manager told me, “Of course we had to pay [insert hand gesture signifying cash].” He told me that they paid somewhere between LE 40,000 to LE 45,000 ($5,715 to $6,430). 

So fear not, things are going back to pre-revolution times – well, as far as alcohol (and as far as this one restaurant) is concerned.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Carjackings, Gas Prices & Ramadan


Taxi meters now begin at LE 3.00 instead of LE 2.50. Meters should start at LE 3 and then move up LE 0.25 increments starting at 0.8 km to 1.1 km (different meters start differently). The meter is only supposed to move up LE 0.25 again after 0.2 km. 


There has always been crime, but Egypt was a relatively safe place. In fact, I’d venture to say that it was “stupid safe” (e.g. so safe that you momentarily get stupid and forget to use basic precautions). That has all changed significantly.

For any of you that want to compare the crime rates to countries like the US and UK, save it. The reason that this is so important to those of us living here is because it is a sudden hike in criminal activity compared to previous figures. Comparing crime rates to other countries is like comparing apples and oranges. And by doing so, you downplay the activities negating the lesson that we all need to be more cautious and aware of our surroundings.

It’s been one full week since the start of Ramadan (June 29), and this Ramadan is seeing more criminal activity than years past. Already there have been three carjackings since the start of the holy month: two in Katamaya and one in Maadi.

One of the incidents in Katamaya was at a well-known gas station/supermarket. The man went inside the station and came out to another SUV pulling up. Several onlookers were present, but that did little to deter the armed gunmen as they surrounded the man and vehicle. The Maadi carjacking took place at the Grand Mall, also a high-traffic area with each of these incidents taking place around 8 am.

While SUVs seem to be the main target, the actions being taken in such a public spotlight show that the criminals are growing bolder. There is also speculation at how sophisticated this criminal activity of SUV hijacking has become, with some even wondering about police involvement.

Gas Prices

Photo source: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Gas prices have increased 30-75%. For instance, 92 octane was previously LE 1.85 and now it is LE 2.60 which will affect those of you who have cars and/or a private driver. Taxis are mostly equipped to take natural gas with prices rising from LE 0..45 to LE 1.10, an increase of 59%, according to my former driver Ramy (who was and still is an angel).

Since the white taxis hit Cairo streets about 4.5 years ago, the meters have not been changed to properly reflect the rising prices. So many times you will find that taxis are refusing to use their meters, and if you don’t know how to negotiate in Arabic, you may find yourself in a jam.

For those of us that lived here pre-white taxis, there were a few rules that you could use if you couldn’t negotiate.
  • Find out from friends about how much the ride should be, and make sure to factor in any excess traffic.
  • Exit the car and pay through the window. If the driver begins a tirade, just keep walking. However, make sure to get out in an area that has people around in case of any unnecessary aggression from the driver.

With the recent change, here are some price points that I’ve compiled to help (this is with normal traffic):
  • Maadi Degla to Corniche, LE 8-10
  • Degla to Degla should still run around LE 5
  • Maadi to Garden City, LE 28
  • Maadi to Zamalak (Asr el Nil Bridge with the lion statues to any of the boats), LE 35
  • Maadi to Zamalak (Sequoia/Abu Feda St), LE 40
  • Maadi to Heliopolis (Corba), LE 35

Those are just my estimates given how much they were prior to the most recent gas hike. Use your own judgment, but even if you do know how to negotiate in Arabic, try to teeter around those prices. Also understand that many of these drivers are very poor. You don’t have to over-compensate and don’t let anyone make you feel as such, but be mindful and pay a little more than you did.

And while you may be unhappy with the new prices, remember that Egypt struggles financially mainly as a result of unnecessary and outlandish subsidies. Increasing the price of gas is a necessity as subsidies were (and continue to be) a drain on the economy.


I am contributing to the Oasis magazine, a publication to help the expat community via the Community Services Association (CSA). In the most recent issue, I gave some pointers for getting through Ramadan (“A Woman in Cairo – Ramadan for Expats”). Please take a look and for the upcoming issue, I give tips on taking taxis. Unfortunately, that article was written prior to the recent gas price change; however, the rest of it is still very important for those of you that need to take a cab.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Letters from Egypt: SUPRRISE!

The results from the presidential elections between former army chief Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and previous presidential hopeful Hamdeen Sabahy held May 26-28 will be announced today. It was such a close race, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will win…

Voter participation was so low that polling stations remained open an extra day. In addition, on May 26 at 11 pm, the government declared May 27 a holiday in hopes of encouraging a higher turnout.

Figures out of the Electoral Commission said that 37% of the eligible voters had taken part in the elections although analysts refuted that claim. The AP reported that one voting station in the Cairo neighborhood of Zamalak failed to see a single voter more than an hour after it opened. Another precinct in the Maadi neighborhood of Cairo, saw a very short line compared to the lines in the 2012 elections that were wrapped around buildings spilling over onto other streets.

The election organizers blamed the heat as the main culprit behind low numbers although temperatures remained stagnant over the past week as well as outdoor cafes continuing business as usual. Supporters of the former president Mohammed Morsi boycotted the vote while others simply feel as though Sisi will win regardless.

So get your surprise reveal party ready and practice your shocked facial expressions. Load them on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. And get ready because on Saturday, June 7 – Egypt’s new president will take office.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Heading to the Polls (Again)

As I ventured downtown Thursday night, people were putting up more General Al Sisi signs. The sites consisted of 3-4 people (depending on the size of the sign) as music blared, unlike previous times that had crowds in the hundreds/thousands celebrating. A friend’s uncle spent LE 1,500 (over $200) for four regular signs and one large sign in support of Sisi (exactly who got that money, I wonder). Some of the Egyptian flags being sold on the street have Sisi's picture printed in the center, yet there are no signs or ads remotely featuring the general’s opponent, Hamdeen Sabahy.

Although the military leader is expected to win by a landslide, be on the lookout for his opponent to be granted a government position once the winner [Sisi] has been announced (e.g. ministerial cabinet or even prime minister). It would not be a free and fair election without another candidate. After all, transparency is the backbone of Egyptian society – past and present (and in the near future).

A few snapshots taken earlier today kicking off presidential elections:

Ladies lining up to cast their ballots; however, previous elections had double/triple this amount

Every medan and crosswalk features much of the same

Egyptians showing their support

Flags are everywhere, including this coffee shop

Are they happy about the elections or the day off from work?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Letters from Egypt: When Elephants Fight, the Grass Suffers

Picture source: Wikipedia
I went over to grab a friend last night to treat them to a farewell dinner at one of my favorite places in Cairo (The Lemon Tree on the Imperial Boat in Zamalak). I say farewell because the friend will travel to the US for work, but since he is a defense contractor working alongside the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) – the situation is more than a little uncertain.

Paperwork was not filed within the allotted time by the EAF, and even though the EAF renewed some of the contracts, the money has not been provided to keep certain divisions. So it appears as though many US-Egypt conjoined activities will be halted until funds are freed up or dismissed indefinitely. Some Egyptians would be happy to hear that news. “We’ll just get the money from China” or “Who cares? We don’t need the US” are just a couple of statements I hear in response to any discussion of the US withdrawing financial support to Egypt (in this case, I’m referring to the military aid).

As we were leaving the building, each security staff member as well as others employed at this building stood up to shake my friend’s hand and say, “Thank you sir. This is my last night.” They were only told yesterday after 6 pm that it was their last day at work. Turning the corner, another contractor was sitting with two of the Egyptian staff members who have tears in their eyes.

Their job consisted of sitting in front of the building, guarding the embassy-issued vehicles, signing in guests and other security functions. It wasn’t a highly-involved job, but it was a job. It probably didn’t pay that much, but it paid. Egypt’s unemployment rate pre-revolution (2011, not to be confused with the 2013 coup) stood at a little over 10%, but has increased since to 13%. This one contract employs an estimated 200-300 Egyptians doing everything from cooking and cleaning to IT specialists and communications. And this isn’t the only contract under review.

The top generals and officials will not feel the pain, and while 200-300 people seem insignificant compared to the total Egyptian population (over 80 million), there will likely be more cuts. And this will continue the road to instability. Remember, the Arab Spring was started by a vegetable vendor in Tunisia unhappy with the lack of job opportunities.

Last night was a somber moment that made my heart ache for these guys.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers (Kenyan proverb)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Harassment at Security Checkpoints

Army checkpoint at Nekhel in the Sinai
It’s been awhile since my last blog, but with the title of this one, you can probably imagine that I’ve been doing a bit of traveling. And I haven’t been alone, many of you have also been venturing outside of Egypt. But traveling inside Egypt proved to be more trying for one couple as they traveled to Taba for Easter weekend.

Check points have increased throughout the country as more threats have been issued affecting Egypt’s national security. And the Sinai in particular is on high alert especially with the recent additions to the US Terrorist Watch List (Ansar Bayt al Maqdis) and the Egyptian Interior Ministry naming another to its own terrorist list (Ajnad Misr). You would think that the increased checkpoints would make you feel safer, not violated.

My friends, D (non-Egyptian, but Arab descent) and her husband M (Egyptian) of 20 years, drove from Cairo to Taba on Easter weekend. Like many others, the couple brought some adult beverages: D with her vodka and M with his Heineken. Rolling upon one army checkpoint at Nekhel, approximately 140 km from Taba, officers began searching their car. Coming across the vodka and beer, the officer said that they had to confiscate the alcohol. The reasoning? He said that the couple didn’t have Duty Free receipts to claim purchase. However, Egypt brews its own beer and wine (as well as making some local spirits which I do not suggest you try) including Heineken. Why would anyone need proof of purchase from Duty Free for local products?

D debated this confiscation while men searched her car as other cars passed easily through the checkpoint, even a microbus holding four passengers. If any car should be stopped and thoroughly searched, shouldn’t it be a microbus?

So D demanded the return of the alcohol on their way back to Cairo and one army man showed her to an area in the desert where other empty beer bottles lay and said, “This is where your bottles will be.” Then he said, “You should be thankful we’re being so nice, it would be much worse if you were stopped by police.”

He was right. It was much worse. About 90 km later, only 50 km outside of Taba, the couple was stopped at a police checkpoint. Cops began rummaging through the couples’ suitcases, where D’s undergarments were obviously terroristic in nature. The officer would call one person out to inspect the items, holding each piece up for all to see, and then another and then another before D counted 16 men going through her delicates. Then they turned their attention to a condom that was found on M’s bag leading the officer to begin questioning M.

Now when stopped, the first thing that any official will ask – army and police – is for your ID. In the Sinai, everyone in the vehicle will have to show ID. On Egyptian IDs, if you are married, it will say on the back of the female’s ID, “Wife of XXX.” M asked the officer, “So this is illegal now? Condoms are illegal?”

The police wanted D out of the car, but she began yelling saying that she wouldn’t get out of the car because she knew that their reason was not search the car, but to check her. M responded that they couldn’t ask him to get his wife out of the car and said, “You have her ID, you looked at it. Did you not see the back? It says, ‘Married to XXX.’” The cops stopped searching and waved them through.

D was upset, and rightfully so. It’s a violation of your privacy to have such a show of your under garments. In addition to that, no man is supposed to check a female’s things. You can request at the airport, should they stop to search you, to be searched by a woman instead. However, how can you request another woman check your luggage when you’re in the middle of the desert? M told D that he was sorry, but he couldn’t speak up because it was night time and he was scared that if he said anything, something far worse would have happened.

Heightened security checks are understandable, if they are serving the purpose to combat militant actions; however, can anyone say after reading this story that the one car that remained on the side of the road while others freely passed were a threat? Are bras and panties now up for debate? Or is it that latex is now banned yet no one else has received the memo? Either way, be careful when traveling in vehicles outside of Cairo. It seems that it’s a free-for-all for alcohol and cheap thrills that may be at your expense.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Letters from Egypt: More Americans to Leave

Although US Secretary of State John Kerry said on March 12 that Congress would soon decide if the US would resume military aid to Egypt, another American defense company just announced its plans to downsize its Egypt operations. General Dynamics was recently informed that it will decrease its Egypt staff by 50%, following behind aerospace and defense company Raytheon. Others that could follow suit include Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

It is difficult to gauge if contract non-renewals or decreased staff are the result of the US government (or in Raytheon’s case, the Egyptian military) or the end of a contract altogether as these firms have several divisions within. However, when the US cut military aid (around $1.3 billion annually) in October, it affected Egypt’s military from gaining access to more F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 tank kits, Harpoon missiles and Apache helicopters. It would only be likely that this would trickle into jobs that pertained to any of the halted equipment, e.g. Boeing packing up employees that work on Apache helicopters or Lockheed relocating its staff that deal with F-16s.


In other news, several incidents have occurred throughout Maadi including (per the US Embassy) two armed robberies. The first was around Road 213, but the story from the embassy is unclear.

“The men had lured the boys to the vehicle by asking for directions. The incident occurred between Victoria Square and the Cairo American College (CAC) Kiosk at 8:00 p.m. The boys reported that they were driven outside of Maadi and robbed of cash and mobile phones, but left unharmed with enough money to make their way back to Maadi.”

Dear Embassy, just a couple of questions here:
How many boys were there?
What were their ages? If the boys were really young, I can imagine some naivety; however, how did multiple boys get inside the car from being “lured” from outside in an area that has high traffic throughout the night particularly at 8 pm?

The embassy advised that “Children should be reminded that they should never respond to strangers’ request for assistance or to approach the vehicle of someone they do not know.” I think that should be revised to “Teach your children not to get into a stranger’s vehicle” because I really can’t understand how this happened otherwise. If you know, please feel free to clarify.

The next incident happened on Rd 209 also near CAC. “An individual stopped the vehicle he was driving and brandished a weapon toward a female with two small children and a dog.”

Now onto two other separate incidents that I can confirm:
Villa near Medan Victoria in Maadi (close to ACE Club) was robbed the weekend of the March 7th. Electronics, jewelry and randomly – a couple of bottles of perfume – were stolen.

Female held up at knife point close to USAID offices in New Maadi at 9 am March 11. The perpetrator was caught off-guard and ran away when another office employee appeared.

Please remain vigilant and aware of your surroundings. Females especially, do not walk with your headphones in because you should be aware of cars or someone approaching on foot. Remember that anything can be used as a weapon – you don’t need a taser or the like. You can use something as simple as a fork (my personal fave because if you forget to remove it from your purse and pass through a metal detector, you can always say it was for your lunch) and if all else fails, use a writing pen. Also, if you carry any kind of perfume or body spray, it can suffice as pepper spray (an irritant is an irritant regardless of its intended purpose). Either way, you’re not always going to have someone to come to your defense and it is up to you to ultimately safeguard yourself. Be smart.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Egypt Refuses Help from Israel during Sinai Attack

On Sunday, three Korean tourists and an Egyptian bus driver were killed while 14 others were injured in an attack on a tourist bus in Sinai’s Taba, the Egyptian town where people may enter Israel’s Eilat. Investigations are currently underway to determine the cause of the blast.

People with minor injuries were taken to Taba and Nuweiba hospitals while those that suffered more severe injuries were taken to Sharm el Sheikh medical facilities. But did you know that Israel had ambulances at the border to offer assistance? Naturally Egypt refused.

Political reasons stopped the sending of injured civilians to a far closer hospital for medical treatment. What if that was your family member and they were severely injured needing immediate medical assistance? Would you be so understanding?

From Google Maps, you can see that Eilat is 11.4 km away from Taba while Sharm el Sheikh is 222 km.

Egypt, if you aren’t going to allow for emergency help from Israeli authorities amid claims that more terrorist-like activity is set to continue then maybe you should reconsider expanding your medical facilities and personnel throughout the Sinai.

Also, a sad read about the death of Egypt's tourism industry - a sector that so many rely on: “The Death of Tourism” by Mohamed Khairat, founder of Egyptianstreets.com 

By the way, as I tried to hyperlink the Taba Border Crossing with the site from a non-wikipedia link, it appears that the Israeli government site is blocked in Egypt (or it could just be my internet).

Friday, January 24, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Solitude and Bombs

Photo source: Al Ahram Mai Shaheen

What – I go out in downtown last night and then there is a bomb? Oh c’mon people. FYI there also seems to be phone/network interruptions as well.

I decided the other day that it had been awhile since I challenged myself, so I chose to step outside of my comfort zone and head out on a Thursday night…alone. It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal because in most of our home countries, going to grab a drink means that you will usually enjoy a game and/or meet new people. However, being a single woman doing it alone in Cairo is – well, almost unheard of (unless you count those in transit sitting at airport hotel bars). According to a Pub 28 patron Ahmed: “No. It doesn’t happen. Women here don’t go out by themselves. Do you drive? You took a taxi? From Maadi to Zamalak? Alone?” Shock.

And there’s a reason for that. If you are a single female, there is almost always hassle involved with unwanted advancements and dare I say, some will even think you are a prostitute. I figured that the worse that could happen was I sit alone the entire night without a soul to talk to and the best was that I would meet new people. Instead of letting my fears get the best of me or what other perceptions might be, I decided to just go for it knowing that it would at least be a blog topic.

So, I grabbed a taxi from the street and made my way an hour in Thursday traffic to Pub 28. My taxi driver, Khaled, had a properly working meter (the ever-growing rigged meter problem or just refusal to use the meter at all is becoming the norm). I took his number for a possible pick-up. Total cost: LE 25 + LE 10 for tip (Thursday traffic).

I got the last seat available at the bar, all the way in the corner basically sitting on top of a couple. They left and I relocated where I met a German woman who was actually early for a business meeting so decided to stop in to the pub for a quick glass of white wine. We began talking and strangely enough, she has lived in Maadi for seven years (1.5 more than me). We exchanged business cards and made plans to get together at one of our favorite restaurants in the neighborhood.

Then came Rana. An Egyptian character who had the strangest accent that was almost as though she tried to portray that she was slightly British mixed with hints of various European undertones and a whole lot of bullsh*t. The best part was when she actively tried to flirt with her two colleagues who are decades younger saying, “Oh but you can bring your spouses to the place one night” and one of the guys responded, “I’m getting a divorce.”

Normally that would be awkward, but not with Rana. She just kept regaling about how she could be married if she chose, but she loves being 1,000-years old and single. “Don’t you think I could have been married by now? I have plenty of people chasing after me and I turn them down all the time.” Bravo Rana, way to bounce back and continue to talk about yourself…for an hour straight. Impressive.

Bathroom break resulted in a creeper. He creeped from the bathroom after saying hello, to the bar a few seats down and after Rana and her grandchildren left, relocated himself right next to me. I pretended not to notice, as you do; however, eventually there is going to be that opening and you aren’t getting out of it. Nope. Never. Unless you’re just rude, but what else did I have going on? Ahmed was born and raised in Zamalak and began his own advertising firm. He handles a plethora of ad sales, including for elections. He said that ad campaigns in total for a presidential election usually run around $20 million and about 20-25% of that goes to printers (banners, fliers). He has voted in each election or referendum and recognizes that Egypt doesn’t have a leader for the short-term but said, “I really hope and believe that in the long-term we will have a better solution and direction.” Hey, creeper turned out to be pretty interesting.

A friend of mine ended up arriving introducing me to another associate: a Canadian female working at an NGO. In Maadi, it’s rare that you meet anyone outside of teaching and oil & gas. Previously living in Oman, she moved to Cairo in October. While she had visited before, she never thought she could live here. I asked her what she thought of it now that she was here and said, “I like it more than I thought I would. It’s actually a good place to live.” Refreshing.

The three of us headed to one of the boats in Zamalak where I ran into another old friend. We ended up talking for an hour or so just catching up and then I grabbed another taxi to head back to Maadi. I went through three road blocks on my way back: one right at the Italian embassy on the Corniche; another close to the Al Salam hospital/justice buildings; and one right at the turn by the Total gas station and Grand CafĂ©. I remember thinking, “I don’t know why they do this considering they don’t stop any car whatsoever passing through. It’s a complete waste of security.” Road 9 was completely blocked off with an army tank stationed at the police station (as per usual) and barbed wire to stop any thru-traffic and a huge water leak had flooded the area.

So coming in right before 4 am, I was definitely disoriented when I woke up to another blast a little past 6 am. It didn’t register with me what happened and unlike the RPG incident, I didn’t hear the army guys screaming at one another in the distance. I fell back asleep only to wake up a couple of hours later to my phone ringing. J.C. knew I’d ventured out downtown alone and was calling to find out if I was alright. FYI it’s always imperative that someone knows where you are in case something happens – there’s solitude and then there’s stupidity. Don’t be the latter.

Just in case you missed it, bombs have [again] erupted throughout Cairo. The detonations were so large (or numerous) that they could even be heard in Maadi (the bomb locations were about 45 minutes away). Local news source Al Ahram said that five people were killed in two separate bomb attacks in Greater Cairo with 87 reported injured. Al Qaeda Sinai spin-off group, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, has claimed the attack. There have been reports that the Muslim Brotherhood supports the new Islamist group, but little information is available on Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. Just remember, the Muslim Brotherhood was the start of every Islamist terrorist organization.

As the January 25 Police/Revolution Day approaches, security is on high alert and undoubtedly many of you living here are going to be placed under travel restrictions. If things worsen, there will also likely be another round of evacuations.

It’s a shame that such a random, yet fun night was marred by these two bomb incidents. And yet it’s horrible to think that another curfew is going to be imposed and for how long this time?