Home Lifestyle In Egypt, those who remember Mubarak have little patience for lockdowns

In Egypt, those who remember Mubarak have little patience for lockdowns

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The sprawling metropolis is hard to contain - Getty

The sprawling metropolis is hard to contain – Getty

When it comes to lockdowns, Egypt has history. Over brunch at a flash hilltop resort in Giza, a work contact tells me how, following the ousting of then president Hosni Mubarak back in 2011, the military regime sought to impose such measures, confining citizens to their home, in a doomed attempt to quell the uprising.

As a result, for many Egyptians, the vocabulary of lockdowns conjures up a more visceral reaction than it might elsewhere. Could that explain why the country has, so far, shunned the kind of draconian measures ordered by the likes of Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf states, instead opting for much looser – and shorter – measures?

Who knows. I suspect a more pressing reason is that, even for the hardened puritans of Sage, the idea of containing a sprawling megacity like Cairo might prove a stretch too far. Either way the capital, like the rest of the country, remains open for business; in the case of its famous street-hawkers, aggressively so.

If social distancing serves any purpose in Cairo, it’s as a class indicator. Head to the posh Western restaurants of Zamalek – the cosmopolitan, Manhattan-shaped island that houses the city’s diplomatic community – and you’ll find familiar signs about the need to keep two metres apart. Bored security guards manning clapped out metal detectors occasionally remind guests about the loosely-enforced mask mandate.

Go deeper into the boroughs of the city, the downtown area that stretches from Tahrir Square to the majestic Ramses station, and things couldn’t be more different. At first I think it’s the sheer volume of people that feels so novel. Then I realise it’s the way they’re walking. It’s as if everyone has somewhere to be – and something to do – rather than just stealing the chance for their daily exercise. As someone who walks through central London every day, this shouldn’t feel as alien – or as thrilling – as it does. But here we are.

The mask rules are loosely enforced - GettyThe mask rules are loosely enforced - Getty

The mask rules are loosely enforced – Getty

For the Western guest, or at least one of a certain mindset, any walk around central Cairo comes with a tinge of sadness. It’s now nearing a century since the city was known as a hotbed of cosmopolitanism and the decades in between haven’t been particularly kind to Egypt. Cairo, in the eyes of many of its Europhilic upper classes, has gone from Paris on the Nile to just another third world megacity.

From time to time, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the glorious past. In the Abdeen district, the Art Deco cinemas – many of which are still playing – are a joy to behold. Meanwhile, a trip to nearby Cafe Riche, a 113-year-old bistro long associated with Egypt’s literary elite, is a particular delight, although when I spot a sign saying that alcoholic drinks can only be purchased with food, the waiters – presumably strangers to the old ‘scotch egg’ debate – are baffled as to why I’m so amused.

Hospitality-wise, though, the real star discovery is Bar 3am, hidden on a backstreet in Zamalek, which turns out to be nothing more than a makeshift drinking den with its own barman. The whole thing is in total darkness, illuminated only when he turns on the light to guide new arrivals to their seats. Every time it happens, I’m treated to the sight of surprised locals, dressed in dusty jellabiya robes, glancing curiously in my direction.

The establishment’s rather threadbare decor is contrasted by the fact not only that it appears proudly on Google Maps but that it’s also been the recipient of several five-star reviews. Well deserved in my view.

The Zamalek district - GettyThe Zamalek district - Getty

The Zamalek district – Getty

For the more hedonistically inclined, the city boasts several hotel casinos too – the product, largely, of Cairo’s proximity to the Gulf states – full of spendthrift playboys with not much else to do right now. The casino in the Nile Ritz Carlton is licensed to Crockford’s of Mayfair, and delivers the kind of standards that discerning punters will have to come to expect.

All in all, Cairo delivers a satisfying trip; even better after months of forced travel abstinence. I step on to the plane feeling profoundly grateful for the work that brought me here. After a while, I find myself recalling a press release I received some years ago, pushing the slightly cringe-inducing concept of bleisure’: the practice of taking a short recreational break to follow on from a business trip.

At the time, I laughed it off as silly and contrived. Well I’m not laughing now.

How easy is it to leave the country right now?

Going out

It’s very easy to get on a plane. I had evidence to show it was a work trip, but this wasn’t asked for. Makes sense really – why would an airline try to do itself out of business? I didn’t see anyone being stopped in the airport.

I did have a big scare at check-in when one of the stewards said my negative PCR test result might not be accepted as there was a problem with Doctap tests. She called her manager over, who checked it. Apparently there’s a problem with fraudulent PCR certificates with the Doctap brand. I’m not sure if this is people knowingly buying counterfeit certificates, or – worse – unknowingly paying for fake tests…

Once you were through security, EgyptAir checked you had a PCR test twice before boarding. Not a huge imposition but the number of large families boarding slowed it down quite a bit.

Arrivals at Heathrow earlier this month - GettyArrivals at Heathrow earlier this month - Getty

Arrivals at Heathrow earlier this month – Getty

Coming back

There was a cursory check as you got onto the plane that you’d filled out your landing form and you had your PCR test certificate. They didn’t scrutinise them or anything, so it was very quick.

Immigration at Heathrow took significantly longer; probably two hours in total. Annoyingly the first bit is a pre-queue, before you even go into the main immigration area, so you don’t know how long it will take. Heathrow staff were friendly and handed out water. Anyone with children can skip the queue.

There was lots of confusion in the queue about the extra requirement to book two PCR tests. A Heathrow staff member asked people to put their hands up if they hadn’t done this. Quite a few people were then taken aside presumably to complete the admin (and pay £210 a head).

My border control guy was very grouchy. That may have even been intentional. He checked the form and asked me to confirm basic details and whether I’d been to any red list countries. We got off on the wrong foot when we asked where I lived in London. I said Old Street – meaning the general area – and he answered, Well it doesn’t say that here’. Obviously I was able to give my full address – so it wasn’t a problem – but he was slightly suspicious.

Border control wanted to see the receipt that I’d booked the two Covid tests. They asked about the purpose of my trip but didn’t ask for evidence or anything like that. All in all, it could have been much worse.

Read more: Serbia or Barbados? The curious array of countries shunning travel bans and welcoming Britons

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