The most populous of Arab countries, Egypt has a history dating back over 7000 years. Contemporary Egypt defined its importance by heralding the birth of the Arab Spring with the uprising against pro-West leader Hosni Mubarak. The former leader’s iron rule held together a coalition of opposing forces, many of which are now involved in a struggle for influence. December 2011 elections saw Islamic parties make important gains, and tensions between Christian and Muslim sectors of the population are a concern. The role of the interim ruling military council, tasked with maintaining law and order, remains unclear, even as elections happen. Economic reforms have stalled in the wake of the uprisings, with large investments in communications and physical infrastructure on the back burner. Despite this, the sheer size of the market and the relative freedom of doing business make Egypt an African powerhouse and seductive to development entrepreneurs.
Cairo is Egypt’s capital city and main economic hub, home to most of the commerce and some 18 million people. Its trendiest suburb and home to much of the expat community is Maadi, which is leafy and cool. Alexandria and Port Said, both on the Mediterranean, are important ports for Europe. Aswan is the hub of the upper Nile communities and Suez the focus for the canal linking Europe with the East.
Egypt is largely desert, with most economic activity along the more temperate strip of the Nile, its delta and flood plain. As such, summers are hot and dry and winters cooler, but bouts of humidity can be extreme along the Nile system. Dust storms are likely in March and April when the Western Desert winds are strongest. Temperatures in Cairo range from 40°C in summer to 20°C in winter, with little rain. The Mediterranean coast is cooler.
Although visas can be obtained at your point of entry, passport holders from all African countries are required to have visas prior to arrival in Egypt. Consult the Egyptian embassy or consulate in your country.
Egypt’s communications are good – and were ironically instrumental in the success of the uprising. Mubarak rolled out his ‘every household will have an Internet-linked computer’ in 2008. Internet penetration has risen sharply since 2000 from 1% to an estimated 35% in 2011. Cell phone penetration is excellent, though still growing rapidly, and roaming services are available. Vodafone has 18 million subscribers.
Safety Egypt is still a country in transition with all the associated risks. However, it is also a sophisticated society and no more than normal care needs to be taken. Arguably the bigger issue is poverty – beggars and touts, an Egypt-wide issue, are a challenge, and a firm but respectful approach is needed.
The airport Cairo’s airport at Heliopolis is 22 kilometres from the city centre. Major construction work will turn Terminal 2 into a world-class hub by 2013. Until then, Terminal 1 (called ‘the old airport’) and Terminal 3 are the centres of operation. International flights arrive at both terminals. Transport between the two is every 30 minutes by free shuttle and, soon, by monorail. Transport to the city is best done by Airport Shuttle, which is air-conditioned. A third line of the Cairo Metro will soon link the city with the airport.
Money The Egyptian pound is legal tender, and unlike much of the rest of Africa, US dollars are not accepted in shops, so change money on arrival.
Even though Egypt is a large country, much of the population is located in heavily industrialised, built-up areas, meaning traffic can be heavy – Cairo is especially bad, with 17 million people trying to get around. The better option is the underground and overground Cairo Metro, a full rapid transit system that sports a tunnel under the Nile. There are two lines that link most important areas, and a third being built. All Metro trains reserve the middle two cars for women and the back car for mixed use after 21h00.
Drink bottled water and be aware of street food. The country has some of the continent’s best hospitals, but insurance is essential.
Population: 78 million
Time zone: GMT+2
Plugs: Two-pin round
Dialing code: +20 +area code + number
Currency: Egyptian Pound. US$1=6EGP
GDP growth rate (2010): 5.1%
Language: English is widely spoken and understood. Arabic and some French