Egypt: a response to Arthur Frommer

Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommer’s Travel Guides, has posted a short blog advising US citizens not to visit Egypt, because of – for want of a better name – the embassy riots. He says “the government of Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi has whipped up anti-American sentiments among the Egyptian population” and has been “silent” on the issue of violence directed agains the US Embassy in Cairo.

Frommer concludes by saying that “until…steps are taken by Egyptian officials to discourage such violence, it is clearly unsafe for Americans to visit Egypt as tourists.”

Now, first of all, Morsi had already condemned the violence before Frommer posted his blog. A report here by the AP is timed at 6.18AM ET Thursday, almost five hours before Frommer’s blog went up.

But, regardless, when Frommer conflates a violent minority with a national government, he is playing the extremists’ game for them. As much as the US government cannot be held responsible for the actions of individual filmmakers, the Egyptian government cannot be held responsible for the actions of individual protesters. Frommer should know that. And so should the people throwing rocks in Cairo.

Wiser observers than me have already called the riots “manufactured outrage”: Frommer is quite wrong if he imagines the Egyptian government “whipping up” anything. Quite the reverse: the Egyptian government, for so long the radical opposition (to Mubarak), and unused to power, has rapidly found itself threatened by an even more radical opposition – the Salafis. The Salafis are doing the whipping. And they chose the right date to do it.

And yet, as anyone who has spent any time in Egypt is aware, there’s no need to “whip up” anti-American sentiment. It is overt – and has been for years. In that regard, nothing has changed.

Frommer is right on one thing: the people hate the police. That – rather than religious outrage – is what has been driving the violence in Cairo, as a Foreign Policy editor noted yesterday, four minutes before Frommer blogged. Cairo is in a febrile state, for sure – but to imagine that the unrest is targeted against American tourists is fanciful. Citizens of any country who have a nervous disposition should probably avoid Cairo right now. For others, it’s business as usual (or, in the case of Egypt’s tourism industry, $833m down).

Cairo is one thing. But for Frommer to warn Americans away from the whole of Egypt is unreasonable and unwarranted. There is nothing to suggest that life in the deserts, the Nile tourism towns and the Red Sea resorts is anything other than normal. No warnings against travel to Egypt exist on the US State Dept website or the US Embassy in Cairo website. Is Frommer honestly saying that government travel advisories are not cautious enough?

To plant the idea that the whole of Egypt is unsafe or threatening to American tourists does Frommer’s reputation, and that of his company, no good at all.

The situation may, of course, change rapidly: today is Friday, and things in the Middle East often get out of hand on Fridays. But, at this time of writing, it sounds to me like Mr Frommer’s been watching too much TV news. Perhaps he needs to get out more.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, a friend in Cairo has tweeted to tell me “All the action is around the embassy. Two streets away you feel nothing, just normal day-to-day life.”

UPDATE 2: I am quoted in this piece by Laura Bly at USA Today.