If you’re considering visiting Egypt, you’re probably wondering:
- Is Egypt safe?
- Is Cairo safe?
- What’s harassment like (of women, or of toursts) in Egypt like?
- How safe are Egypt’s roads?
- Is there a lot of crime in Egypt?
Here’s an analysis and answer to all those questions.
Before anything, consult your local country’s travel advisory. Many are similar, but it depends on what country you’re from. Here’s the US one as a reference. Generally they say “big cities and tourist areas are fine, but avoid the conflict regions”.
People often ask us “Is Egypt safe for travel?”. It’s understandable, given recent incidents prior to when we went there.
A few recent incidents in Egypt.
- 4 August 2019: >20 people were killed by a car bomb in Central Cairo’s Manial district
- 19 May 2019: Four killed, >16 people were injured after an IED attack on a tourist bus near the Giza pyramids
- 19 February 2019: Bomb behind Al-Azhar Mosque/Khan el Khaili market, killing two.
- 16 February 2019: Clash in North Sinai between Egyptian Military killed seven militants, and fifteen members of Egypt military
- 5 January 2019: A police officer in Cairo died defusing a bomb outside a church
- 29 December 2018: Egyptian militants “kill 40 insurgents” after tourist bus bombing
Receiving this news, it’s natural to wonder if it’s safe in Egypt.
Aside from recent events, you might think of Tahrir Square, where the 2011 revolution against the Mubarak presidency happened. Or you might think of the 2013 aftermath, when forces under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (still in power) attacked protesters after not managing to resolve differences peacefully.
In each of these incidents around a thousand people (different sources give different numbers) died, with several thousand more injured.
Aside from terrorism, we also hear bits of alarming news about Egypt that makes us question its general safety:
- A photojournalist was sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia for taking photos of a protest. (A common story — many others do jail time.)
- A TV interviewer was sent to jail for interviewing someone who’s gay and thus “promoting homosexuality”.
- A man was killed in the south of Cairo for attempting to prevent sexual assault — stabbed by the assailant.
- A tourist was released in mid-2018 after over a year of jail for bringing prescription pain relief medicine in her luggage — not even thinking to conceal it.
So given all this, why do we feel safe in Egypt?
Well, we don’t feel safe, necessarily. Stuff happens everywhere, including our home countries of the USA and Australia, and even other countries that have safer reputations. But we feel safe by knowing where there’s real danger and doing our best to avoid those places.
Here’s what we know about staying safe in Cairo, Egypt.
Is Egypt Safe… in a Nutshell
- Violent crime and murder are lower in Egypt than in the US
- Strangers are helpful in Egypt and patient with foreigners
- Traffic is deadly in Cairo, even if you’re a pedestrian. The safest option is to get an Uber, which is cheap and reliable
- People will stare at you in Egypt (particularly in Cairo, and double particularly if you’re a woman), but it isn’t dangerous in itself
- Harassment of women is very bad in Egypt, even though many try to prevent it. Many women find it easier to take group tours
Violent Crime and Murder in Egypt
We’re less likely to be murdered in Egypt than in the US.
Egypt may be unsafe, but the US can be unsafe too. In general, we feel much safer in Egypt about the possibility of violent crime.
A few stats from publicly available data:
- You’re 3.5x as likely to be randomly murdered in the USA as in Egypt
- People are 25x more likely to own a gun in the USA as in Egypt
- Rape is 273x more likely to happen in the USA than in Egypt — shockingly much higher, but discount this because rape would be much less frequently reported in Egypt
We spent years living in San Francisco, where safety is not guaranteed. There are parts of the central Mission district (where I lived) where you shouldn’t walk at night. We gave many people a wide berth.
While violent assault in the US is statistically rare, in San Francisco you keep getting reminded it might happen at any time. People yell vile things for no reason. If you walk past someone sketchy you face a real risk being lunged at. In our few years in SF, Jo and I were in lockdown in our offices several times because of shooters in the area who had made direct threats against our company. These things never happened to us in Egypt.
In the US in 2018 there were almost as many mass shootings as there were days in the year. Definitions vary, but that’s still a lot!
While you can apparently get semi-automatic weapons in Egypt pretty easily (extremely easily at second-hand markets like the Weapons Market, as-sou’ al-aslaaH, where nobody cares about papers, and also from fancy malls for 10x the price, and all affordable for khawaagas like us), mass shootings in Egypt by members of the public are basically unheard of. And there are 100 million people in Egypt so it’s not a numbers game.
Egyptians describe themselves as pretty hot-blooded. “We’re like the Italians and the Greeks!” one friend told us. Even if this is true (we haven’t seen much evidence of hot-bloodedness except on soap operas), it still just amounts to verbal drama.
And yes, violent crime in Egypt is generally noted as being on the rise. But Egypt is still not known for a place where you should generally be worried about physical safety. So if you’re wondering “Is Cairo safe from a crime perspective?” then yes, we still feel safe from violent threats from random members of the public.
Strangers in Cairo are Helpful
One thing that might people feel safer in Egypt is to know that strangers are helpful and it’s OK to talk to them — as long as you follow a couple of basic social rules.
Firstly, in Cairo, people don’t stand in line in an orderly way. You have to fight your way to the front of the line. You have to do this to buy metro tickets, renew your visa papers, buy tickets to a tourist attraction, anything. People push in a lot.
But once you’re at the front of a crazy line, the person will help you. They’ll speak slow Arabic, and maybe English. They don’t mind being asked. They’ll help.
The reasons for this are firstly, people are nice. Egyptians, like many Middle-Easterners, are at their hearts gregarious and welcoming.
Secondly, Egypt is a much more chaotic and thus verbal society. Things often change and evolve rapidly — small restaurants come and go, staff change, prices and menus evolve. Thus, you always have to ask — anything. How do I buy ta’meyya (felafel) on its own? It’s not on the menu. I have to ask the guy. To which window do we come back to pick up our visas? I have to ask the person behind the counter. There’s no sign, no website, no official guidance anywhere and what’s a website anyway. How much are the oranges? Five LE per kilo?? They were 3.50 yesterday. And seven from that other person… whatever.
People Stare in Egypt (Especially at Women)
People in Egypt will stare or ogle, especially at women. It’s not “unsafe”, but it makes Westerners feel uncomfortable.
We get stared at a lot in Egypt. It doesn’t help that my female partner’s hair is stare-worthy. With fair hair being a relative rarity, her outrageously great hair is surely a large draw. But that’s no excuse.
Staring is creepy. It makes me feel very uncomfortable having this many people — men and women, but mostly men — look at my partner. Part of it is the constant dialogue going on in my head, wondering what they’re thinking, whether it’s innocent curiosity or something worse.
In Egypt, you don’t have to cover your hair. Many suggest that foreigners should not. It’s not mandated by law, and there is a significant portion of the country that has no religious obligation to do so.
That said, the vast majority of women in the country does cover up their hair, and so it’s an option available to you.
Many female visitors opt for a middle ground of wearing long-sleeved tops and jeans, plus optionally covering their hair in a hood, hat, or some other garment simply to reduce attention.
Being ogled is an incredibly common part of life as a woman in Egypt. Two filmmakers made a documentary about it in 2015 (The People’s Girls), and created a video called “Creepers on the Bridge“. Just this clip is hard to watch, but you should. There’s a longer one, called “Four Hours of Walking as a Woman in Cairo” which just makes me hang my head in sadness.
On a necessary lighter note: women are interested in Jo too. In a busy area, various women will ask to take photos every couple of minutes. If you are foreign-looking and mildly exotic (particularly if your hair is blonde), you can expect women in tourist sites to ask to take your photo. You do not have to accept.
Anyway, if you are female and in Egypt, you will be ogled. Do whatever you like to attenuate this (if you want to), but just expect it.
Harassment of Women in Egypt
Being ogled is one thing. Safety for women is a whole other thing. Is Egypt safe for women? Yes and no.
Our general recommendation for women in Egypt, particularly in Cairo: Travel in a group tour if possible, or at least not alone. You can do it otherwise (especially outside Cairo) but it will be easier with others around you.
You might also like our post on safety tips for women in Egypt, including what to wear.
Even though Egypt is pretty forward-thinking with regards to women compared to some of the Middle East (women can drive cars, have jobs, don’t have to wear a veil), Cairo the worst major city in the world for harassment according to Thompson Reuters.
You can Google it and find interviews with young Egyptian men who like calling out at women — things like “I love you” or “marry me” (maybe worse things, but I don’t know them) — and who genuinely think that being ignored is a sign that they like it.
Most women we speak to have a number of strategies for avoiding being harassed in Egypt, if travelling solo.
- Cover your hair. “It’s like becoming invisible” one non-Muslim friend told us. She didn’t like that she had to do it, but she felt an immediate change in that she went far less noticed, except that she still didn’t look very Egyptian.
- Eyes forward, somewhat angry expression, purposeful walk. This can make walking around a lot more pleasant. However, it is not a relaxing experience.
- Get older. As women age, they’re harassed less. As men age (a lot), they also harass less, thankfully.
Harassment is so bad in Egypt that some enterprising and educated locals created HarassMap, a map where you can see where harassment is likely to occur, or report an instance of it. From its name, I thought it was international. Nope. It’s Egyptian.
A few things happen that make it safer for women to travel in Egypt.
Firstly, Egypt’s society is highly communal and interventionist. Strangers will break up fights and will stop harassers or crazy people from harming other strangers. We’ve seen it happen, and our friends have seen it happen (or intervened themselves).
Secondly, men will often actively protect women. For example, in Egypt, in every single metro we’ve taken, men have made way for women. If they have a seat, the men will offer it up for women of any age. Even if all they have is a wall to lean on, a man will offer that to a woman who has less. It’s a nice touch in a world where women feel less safe.
In the microbus (see our transport guide), men will give up seats for women. Men will go to efforts to make sure there’s no inadvertent touching of shoulders and hips.
Finally, there are many women-only spaces. Metros have women-only cars and gyms have women-only floors. Many venues have women-only hours, during which it’s strictly forbidden for men to enter.
Despite all this, it would not be safe to rely on interventionists or social rules. If travelling to Cairo alone as a young woman, stay in group tours, or if possible, don’t travel alone.
Traffic and Road Accidents in Cairo: Deadly, so Get an Uber
There are a few ways of getting around but they’re all deadly. Our recommendation is to get an Uber, which is safer than a taxi, as drivers have to be vetted.
The per-capita mortality rate for traffic in Cairo is around 10-20 times that in Australia/the US, with 12,000 reported deaths on average each year.
The real number of traffic deaths in Cairo is probably is much higher and closer to 20-30,000, given how many people in Egypt are not actually registered, living extra-legally. This amounts to somewhere between 40 (officially) to 100 (my guess) people dying every day in traffic accidents.
Even the same night I wrote the guide to transport in Cairo, we saw a motorcycle with two people on it get hit by a car. They limped away, but the guy’s left leg was hit by the car and wasn’t in good shape. They weren’t wearing helmets — nobody wears helmets.
If you’re not in a vehicle, you’re still not safe. Estimates are that about 25% of traffic deaths are pedestrians. It’s impossible to use the sidewalks in most parts of Cairo because cars are parked on them. So you’re forced to walk on the roads, staring down oncoming traffic or trying to get a sense for when it’s approaching.
Microbuses operate outside the official transport system and regularly hit other traffic, and drive very quickly and dangerously to collect as many fares as possible. Every month there are multiple incidents when microbuses either crash on their own or collide with other vehicles.
Taxis and Ubers almost never have seatbelts, but are probably the safest option, as we’d still have to walk to the metro.
Or we could just not go outside!