Is Egypt’s religious tourism industry ready for Christian pilgrimages?

Tourism in Egypt has been hit by successive blows that have driven several countries to warn their citizens of traveling there and have even led some, including Russia, to take strict measures towards the implementation of such warnings.

Pope Francis’s visit to Cairo in April, which went without incident, unlike many anticipated, inspired a new way out of the impasse.

Aside from beaches and historic landmarks, religious tourism would attract a different crowd and that was how the revival plan started to take shape.

The most significant step taken towards making this plan materialize was the flying of the Egyptian minister of tourism to Rome where he got the pope’s official blessing for the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt, thus putting the 25 sites by the which the family—Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, and Joseph—passed on the global Christian pilgrimage map.

While this development seems to herald a new era in Egyptian tourism, it still brings back the same old concerns about general safety together with new ones about receiving large numbers of Christians in a country that is not exactly devoid of sectarian tension.

Ishak Ibrahim, head of the Religious Freedom Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, argued that it is not possible to promote Christian pilgrimage in a country where Christians are marginalized. “We can’t be that detached from reality and that is why promoting Christian pilgrimage has to be accompanied by serious steps towards acknowledging Christian presence,” he said.

Ibrahim cited the example of text books that do not focus at all on Coptic history or the role of Copts in Egyptian civilization which, in turn, does not promote cultural diversity. “Pilgrims are not going to visit sites in a country whose citizens have no respect for their religion,” he added. Former deacon at the Coptic Orthodox Church Beshoy Sami agreed with Ibrahim and said that dealing with sectarian sentiments among Egyptians is the only ways Christian pilgrimage can succeed in Egypt. “The state has to stop solving Muslim-Christian clashes customary reconciliation sessions rather than the law and the people need to stop viewing Christians as inferior,” he said. “Some countries are not even aware that there are Christians in Egypt.”

Priest murder

Melbourne-based Coptic journalist Ashraf Helmi expected the recent murder in Cairo of Egyptian priest Samaan Shehata to have a negative impact on Christian pilgrimage trips, especially that the state did not handle the situation in the right way and only referred to the murderer as mentally ill. “Added to this is the number of religious edicts from extremist preachers who incite people against Christians and teach them intolerance,” he said in a statement. Helmi warned that Shehata’s murder might, in fact, lead many European countries to ask their citizens not to go to Egypt in general and for religious trips in particular.

In fact, journalist Mayada Seif sees the attack on Shehata as a reaction to announcement of starting Christian pilgrimage to Egypt. “It is like a message to the world that Christians who come to Egypt will be killed because Egypt is only for Muslims,” she wrote.

Journalist Osama Salama notes that the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism expects to receive two to three million Christian pilgrims annually and wonders how prepared the state is for such numbers. “The minister of tourism said a film will be made about the holy sites in Egypt to be marketed across the world and pamphlets in many languages are to be printed about those sites. But then what? Is this enough?” he wrote. Salama listed a number of problems that might make pilgrimage trips a failure. “Most of the sites in the journey of the Holy Family are in a deplorable state and need a lot of maintenance.

Time for change

The tree in whose shadow Virgin Mary sat in Cairo, for example, is totally neglected and the area surrounding it is filthy.” Salama cited other issues such as lack of good accommodation in most of the governorates where the sites are located as well the unpaved roads leading to them, which leads to a lot of accidents. “As for trains going to these areas, they are notorious for never leaving or arriving on time in addition to occasional breakdowns and accidents.”

For Salama, it is also not wise to start receiving pilgrims without training a team of tour guides that can accompany them and who should be knowledgeable about this historical era. “Most guides we have are trained in ancient Egyptian history and those won’t be fit for such a job.”

Economic expert Medhat Nafea is more optimistic for he does not believe that lack of hotels is an obstacle since it is a different type of tourism. “The spiritual nature of pilgrimages allows for a simple and rather primitive atmosphere where luxury accommodation is not needed,” he wrote.

While admitting that turmoil in North Sinai can be a problem, Nafea argues that this is bound to change soon. “With the Palestinian reconciliation and the rapprochement with Hamas, normalcy is expected to be gradually restored to Sinai, which makes it safe for pilgrims to visit sits of the Holy Family journey there.”

Nafea noted that Egypt does get tourists who visit holy sites, but they are few and are not part of a full pilgrimage program. “Most of them come from Jerusalem while many are already in Sinai for recreational purposes and that is why it is hard to know their exact number. They do not exceed a few hundreds in all cases.”


Are Egypt and Italy over the Giulio Regeni ordeal?

Almost a year and half had passed since Italy recalled its ambassador to Cairo over the latter’s reported lack of cooperation in the investigation of the torture and murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in what seemed to be a long-standing diplomatic standoff. Sooner than expected, however, on September 14 to be precise, a new ambassador took up his position in Cairo. The decision came as quite a surprise, pleasant for some and alarming for others and while it was seen by Rome as a political necessity, it was frowned upon by parties that linked reconciliation with the full truth.

Commenting on the appointment of a new ambassador to Cairo before the completion of investigation on the Regeni case, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said that it was not practical for the deadlock to last longer. “It’s impossible for countries that are in front of each other not to have high-level political and diplomatic relations,” he addressed members of the foreign committees of both houses of the Italian parliament.

“Egypt is an inextricable partner of Italy, like Italy is an inextricable partner of Egypt.” Alfano stressed that the appointment of a new ambassador does mean the Italian government would give up on Regeni. He, however, admitted in the same address that Regeni’s death created dealt a major blow to bilateral relations between Egypt and Italy.

Regeni’s parents, on the other hand, viewed such a step as a form of abandonment on the part of the Italian state. “It’s only when we know the truth about who killed Giulio and why, when his torturers and all their accomplices are handed over to us, alive, that the ambassador can return to Cairo without trampling on our dignity,” they said in a statement.

Secretary General of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Egyptian House of Representatives Tarek al-Khouly said that the appointment of a new ambassador indicates that Italy has finally realized that its relations with Egypt have been subject to a conspiracy. “This was not only demonstrated by the murder of Giulio Regeni, but also by the bombing that targeted the Italian consulate in Cairo.” he said, in reference to the attack that took place in June 2011. Khouly added that Italy was one of the states that supported Egypt following the June 30 protests, hinting at the possible involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Khouly, the tension between Egypt and Italy lasted for longer than it was supposed to because the Regeni case was blown out of proportion by several parties inside both Italy and Egypt. “But Italy was also wise enough to know that it is better to separate between diplomatic relations and the progress of investigations in Regeni’s case and members of our committee conveyed this to several Italian MPs.”

Ambassador and former Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Haridi argued that three main reasons led to the return of the Italian ambassador to Cairo. “First, Italy must be satisfied with what Egypt has done so far in the Regeni investigations and realizes that Egypt is doing its best to reach the truth,” he said. “Second, the growing threat of terrorism in Libya and the impossibility of dealing with this threat without cooperation with Egypt owing to its influence in Libya.” The third reason, Haridi explained, is the problem of illegal immigration, which preoccupies Europe in general and Italy in particular and in which Egypt’s cooperation is also indispensable. “In short, common interests between Egypt and Italy are much more important than any passing crisis,” he said. Kamel Abdullah, expert on Libyan affairs at al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, also said that Italy was concerned to see France starting to get involved in Libya. “Restoring relations with Egypt was then the way to protect its interests in Libya,” he said. Secretary General of the Arab Investors Union Gamal Bayoumi, noted that other interests are also involved between the two countries. “Italy is Egypt’s top trade partner in the EU and Italian tourists, who contribute a lot to Egypt’s tourism industry, are expected to come back after the crisis is over,” he said.

According to Jeremy Costa, the Italian government made a grave political mistake or “disaster” as he puts it by sending a new ambassador to Egypt. “Rome’s decision is seen to be largely (if not entirely) motivated by external, mostly economic factors, despite the foreign minister’s assertion that the decision was made to allow for closer collaboration on investigations into Regeni’s murder,” he wrote.

Costa saw economic interests between Egypt and Italy as the main reason for resuming ties and particularly mentioned the case of the giant oil and gas company Eni, currently drilling for natural gas off the Egyptian coast, and the billions of dollars such operations are expected to yield. This, Costa argued, is a bound to significantly harm the Italian government. “Perceptions that the decision is another example of the Italian government putting self-interest before the desires of the Italian people could prove to be extremely damaging for Gentiloni’s Democratic Party,” he explained. According to Costa, the Italian government not only let down it people when it gave up on Regeni’s case, but also risked having its image tarnished in front of the International Community. “The Italian government has given up a golden opportunity to not only show its people that it represents their best interests, but also to lead an international condemnation of human rights abuses in Egypt and around the world. By choosing to instead resume relations with Cairo, it may suffer the political consequences it desperately intended to avoid.”

Amid push for Palestinian unity, are Egypt and Hamas friends or foes?

Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas Political Bureau, and a delegation of senior officials from the Gaza Strip recently went to Cairo for talks about reconciliation with Fatah and the possibility of forming a Palestinian unity government. Hamas’s pledge to dissolve the Gaza Administrative Committee, whose establishment further strained relations between the two factions, and its consent to holding general elections demonstrates unprecedented flexibility on the part of the Islamic militant group.

This remarkable shift is not only confined to Hamas’s stance on Fatah, but also extends to its relations with Egypt and which seemed to have soured beyond redemption following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2013. Hamas is obviously having a change of heart at the moment as it seeks Egypt’s mediation, but Egypt’s position remains quite delicate.

In March, 2014, a court ruling banned all Hamas activities and ordered the closure of all the group’s offices in the country. In January 2015, Hamas’s armed wing, Ezz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was declared a terrorist group and in February Hamas was declared a terrorist group. In June of the same year, the second ruling was repealed, but the first was not. Another lawsuit was filed to put Hamas back on the list of terrorist organizations and a verdict is yet to be issued.

Those rulings cited Hamas’s rule in compromising Egypt’s national security through taking part in smuggling weapons to militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula and targeting Egyptian civilians and officials in separate incidents including the assassination of Egypt’s Prosecutor General. Added to this is the fact that one of the major charges ousted President Mohamed Mursi face and is currently doing jail time for is spying for Hamas and the fact that Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is designated as a terrorist organization in Egypt. All these factors complicate the situation between Egypt and Hamas and make it hard to envision a possible rapprochement.

Former MP and professor of political science Amr Hamzawy said that Hamas has taken several steps towards making an alliance with Egypt possible, which was particularly shown in the way the movement currently detaches itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamzawy explained that while Hamas’s original charter stated that the Muslim Brotherhood was the group’s patron organization, the updated one does not. “In the updated charter, Hamas dropped the reference to the Muslim Brotherhood and defined itself as a liberation and resistance movement for which Islam represents the final frame of reference,” he wrote.

“During the press conference in which he announced the updated charter, Khaled Meshaal stressed that Hamas has no organizational ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and that it remains an independent Palestinian organization that is not subject to any form of outside control.” Since then, Hamzawi added, several Hamas senior leaders stated at different occasions that they respect Egyptian sovereignty and understand Egypt’s security concerns. Hamzawi noted Egypt responded to Hamas’s show of goodwill with the regular opening of the border-crossing with the Gaza Strip and expected more “security-related demands” that Hamas would have would have to comply with if they want to stay on Egypt’s good side.

According to MP and expert in Palestinian affairs Samir Ghattas, establishing ties with Hamas is a strategic decision that serves Egypt’s security in the first place. “Gaza poses a direct threat to Egypt and reaching an agreement with Hamas is expected to curb terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula,” he said, in reference to the reported smuggling of weapons from the strip. Ghattas added that Hamas will be committed to block all sorts of possible passage ways through which militants or weapons can pass from Gaza to Sinai.

Expert on Palestinian affairs Hamza Abu Shanab argued that despite the positive steps takes towards bridging the gap between Egypt and Hamas, future disagreements are expected to emerge. “The two parties do not see eye to eye on a number of issues such as normalization with Israel, the extent to which the siege on the Gaza Strip can be lifted, and how far Hamas can secure the border with the Sinai Peninsula,” he said.

According to writer Samih al-Maaita, the question of whether Hamas’s entities will be disbanded poses a bigger problem. “Hamas has a military wing and security forces that have been working for years,” he wrote. “What will happen to these?”

Maaita added that it is important to take into consideration that Egypt was not Hamas’s first choice. “Hamas entered into a number of alliances that had a negative impact on its relations with neighboring countries, especially heavyweights like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and this is when it started changing its strategy,” he wrote, adding that the sustainability of this alliance might also be put into question like its predecessors.