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Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

Sharm el-Sheikh, A 'City of Peace' But of Caution

Sharm el-Sheikh is a popular Egyptian tourist destination where COP27 is being held this year. It has lush underwater habitats, coral reefs and unique diving waters. However, it also has a troubled past and its visitors must follow strict security rules as is usual in Middle Eastern countries.

Located on Egypt's Red Sea coast, in the south of the Sinai Peninsula, the city rests on a promontory overlooking the Strait of Tiran at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. Its strategic location led to its transformation from a fishing village to an important port and naval base for the Egyptian Navy.

It was conquered by Israel during the 1956 Suez Crisis but returned to Egypt in 1957. A United Nations peacekeeping force was stationed there until the Six-Day War in 1967 when Israel reoccupied it. It remained under Israeli control until the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt in 1982 following the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak designated Sharm el-Sheikh "City of Peace" in 1982. Since then, it has hosted major Middle East peace conferences, including direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians in 2010.

However, in 2005, this resort city suffered terrorist attacks on the Egyptian tourism industry. Eighty-eight people were killed and more than 200 injured in the attack. With this background, a visitor can feel how strong the security issue is.

Between COP27 headquarters and places of accommodation in the city, vehicle transfers occasionally encounter roadside checkpoints with heavily armed personnel in black uniforms, helmets and bulletproof vests of the same color, with assault rifles among their weapons.

Before entering a hotel, conference center or shopping mall, all vehicles must wait at an access point while security personnel check with the driver where he is going. In the meantime, an officer with a baton on the end of which is a mirror checks under the car for anything irregular. Similarly, before entering a building, each person must also go through a security check like at an airport: checking backpacks and passing through a lighted rectangle that rules out any unauthorized objects.

Big brother COP27 or not, every casual visitor is also aware of the level of control with which the authorities monitor everything. Following the Arab Spring protests (2010-2012), woven largely from social networks and services such as WhatsApp, the authorities developed an enormous capacity to monitor social network profiles and private Internet activity.

Travelers should anticipate that their online communications may be subject to state surveillance. The cybersecurity law allows the government to block websites that allegedly pose a threat to the stability of the Egyptian state. It also allows it to monitor social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers and suspend accounts deemed to promote fake news, violence or hatred.

Police also monitor LGBTQ dating apps, as the law criminalizes relationships between sexually diverse populations.

Demonstrations in Egypt are only legal if they have an official permit. Therefore, gatherings of five or more people could be considered illegal gatherings. As such, it is unlikely that there will be civil society protests during COP27 to pressure delegations on climate agreement issues. And, if they do, they will be strictly controlled by the authorities.

It is completely forbidden to take photographs of (or near) military installations, including the Suez Canal. Taking pictures of public buildings or infrastructure, including train stations and bridges, is also generally not allowed.

And, speaking of culture, women on Egyptian soil have to take a little extra care of themselves. Generally, this means that legs and shoulders should be covered and clothing should be loose-fitting. They should not wear bathing suits, short-sleeved shirts or shorts outside of places like spas. Tight clothing, shorts and miniskirts are inappropriate for Muslim culture. However, the most important recommendation is for women to go out or drive alone after dark. They are advised to politely decline invitations that take them beyond personal comfort levels, for their safety.

This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published by in Spanish by La Nación on 7 November and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A section of the beach open to the public in Sharm el-Sheikh / Credit: James Andras Badics.