The incidence of crime, violent or otherwise, in Egypt is negligible compared with many Western countries, and you’re generally safe walking around day or night. There has been a spike in petty crime since 2011, though it is statistically still quite rare for tourists to become involved and is easily avoided.
Many Egyptians will greet you in the street and offer you tea and other hospitality, all out of genuine kindness. But in tourist hot spots, ‘Hello, my friend’ can be double-speak for ‘This way, sucker’. Next thing you know, you’re drinking tea with your new friend…in a perfume shop.
The smoothest operators don’t reveal their motives immediately. A kindly professor wants to show you a good restaurant; a mosque ‘muezzin’ starts by showing off his skills; or a bystander warns you not to get caught up in a (fictitious) demonstration ahead. They adapt tactics rapidly. They’ve taken up the ‘Don’t you remember me?’ or 'I work in your hotel' line used in many other African countries, for instance.
It’s all pretty harmless, and many are genuinely friendly and interesting to talk to. But it can be wearing to be treated like a walking wallet. Everyone works out a strategy to short-circuit a pitch for when a smile and a quick stride fails. Claiming not to speak English, on the other hand, usually backfires, as polyglot touts can perform in nearly any language.
Aside from the hustling, there are touts who lie and misinform to divert travellers to hotels for which they get a commission.
If you do get stung, or feel you might crack at the next ‘Excuse me, where are you from?’, take a deep breath and put it in perspective: Cairene traders so completely fleeced the king of Mali, who arrived in the 14th century with a vast amount of gold, on pilgrimage to Mecca, that he had to borrow money to get home. Today’s touts aren’t picking on you because you look like a soft target – they’re doing it because it’s their job. Your angry tirade won’t halt centuries of sales tradition. But it could offend an honest Egyptian who just wants to help.
A 2014 protest law has made it more difficult for crowds to gather. This was explained by the current regime as intended to deter Muslim Brotherhood supporters from gathering in large numbers, as they had been doing on a regular basis. It has also made it more difficult for any other group to gather en masse to protest. But that doesn't mean that everything is quiet, and a quick look through the Egyptian daily press reveals a long list of continuing flashpoints and protests: there were wide-scale protests in spring 2017 against the government's plan to hand Egyptian Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Most flashpoints are far from tourist sites, so it should not intrude on a holiday to Egypt. But in the current climate, it pays to be more than usually aware.
There has been a significant rise in terror attacks in Egypt since the downfall of President Morsi in 2013. Almost all have been aimed at security and government targets, with the majority occurring in the North Sinai where Wilayet-Sinai (formerly Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis) and other jihadi groups are fighting against Egyptian military forces. North Sinai (above Taba) remains a no-travel region, while cautionary travel advisories remain in place for most of the South Sinai and parts of the Western Desert.
There have been no conclusive reports or definitive statements on either the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai in 2015 or the EgyptAir crash over the Mediterranean in 2016. The Sinai crash, though, was claimed by Wilayet-Sinai and is widely believed to have been caused by a bomb.
Elsewhere, there has been sporadic militant activity, the most recent being explosions in Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria in April 2017 (Palm Sunday) that killed at least 44 people and a gun attack on Christian pilgrims near Minya in May 2017 where 30 people died. Daesh have claimed responsibility for both.
In response, President Sisi announced a three-month state of emergency. At the same time, Egypt has upgraded its airport security systems, bringing in a British aviation security consultancy. Unsurprisingly, there is a heavy security presence throughout the country, including at tourist sites.
In spite of all the media attention, crime in Egypt is still significantly less prevalent than in many Western countries. You can usually leave your camera with the guard at the entrance to a tomb, or your bag with the concierge of a hotel, without worrying whether it will be there, and intact, when you get back. Locals have too much to lose by stealing in a country where thieving from guests is particularly frowned upon. Punishments are harsh and, with unemployment so high, the chance of losing one's job is something most Egyptians will not risk. But that doesn't mean that you should not take normal street-smart precautions.
More common theft, such as items stolen from locked hotel rooms and even from safes, continues, so secure your belongings in a locked suitcase.
Generally, though, unwary visitors are parted from their money through scams, and these are something that you really do have to watch out for.
Since 2011 bag and wallet snatchings have been on the rise, usually as drive-bys on mopeds, though very occasionally at knife- or gunpoint. Don’t let this deter you: you’re still more likely to lose your wallet in Barcelona – and more likely to have your lost wallet returned to you in Cairo. To be safe, carry your bag across your body or at least on the side away from the street, and keep it looped around a chair leg in restaurants. Don’t walk on empty streets past 1am or 2am. Be aware of your surroundings when you take your wallet out, and don’t go to an ATM alone at night.
Most Cairo taxis now have up-to-date meters, but in some places the old meters, with their fares in piastres, are still in use. Be sure that the meter is working, or that you know how much you will pay at the end. Otherwise, leave and look for another taxi.
Shop-owners and hawkers will sometimes claim that an item is locally crafted. Some are. But many things you will be offered in souqs and in shops around antiquity sites are mass-produced, some imported from China.
Most visitors to Egypt's sites are offered something that looks old. Antika is the word, with its suggestion of antiquity. Most things openly for sale are no older than the time it took for them to be covered in dust, or faded by the sun (months, perhaps, occasionally years). If you were to buy an actual antiquity and try to take it home, however innocently, you would be smuggling, a crime which can carry a prison sentence with hard labour, and a huge fine.
In taxis and elsewhere, you might be told a hard-luck story, which may involve a relative in hospital needing funds for drugs or an operation, or to buy materials to study or food to eat. You must decide for yourself whether it is better to give something, in case it is true (which it sometimes is), or turn away.
There are still unexploded landmines left over from WWII, around El Alamein and elsewhere along the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts. There are usually danger signs and the areas ought to be closed off. If in doubt, consult a local.
The greatest threat to you on your journey in Egypt will be to your intestines. Many people visiting the country suffer from some sort of intestinal trouble and for a variety of reasons, from unfamiliar diet and lack of hygiene to contaminated food and water. The amount of food offered, usually considerably more than one eats at home, can also threaten your intestinal happiness. Eat moderately, at least at the start of your trip. Always use bottled water, for drinking and for brushing your teeth. Wash your hands before eating. And make sure you drink enough water during the day.
Many government websites offer travel advisories that have up-to-date information on current hot spots. It should be remembered, however, that these are often overly cautious.