This week the government – led by Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party, which has strong links to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood – said it will no longer issue licenses to sell alcohol in some urban areas, including newly-built “satellite cities” on the outskirts of major population centres.
Announcing the move, Nabil Abbas, vice-president of the New Urban Communities Authority, said: “We cannot allow stores spreading debauchery in our society.”
Although the ban is unlikely to affect any key holiday destinations – particularly Red Sea resorts such as Sharm El Sheikh – it has raised fears that growing conservatism could soon affect those travellers wishing to visit the country and enjoy a drink. One Cairo-based news website described the move as “the end of alcohol in Egypt”.
But Peter Lilley, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Travel Association, which promotes the region, argued that “financial realities” would discourage the Egyptian government from restricting the sale of alcohol further.
“Egypt is very volatile so it’s impossible to give cast-iron guarantees, but tourism is absolutely vital to the country’s economy,” he said. “Even those in government who dislike some of the ‘negative’ aspects of tourism which offend Muslims – such as alcohol – know it would be madness to effectively close the door to tourists.
“The Red Sea Riviera was quite deliberately created as a sort of tourist enclave, almost entirely separate from the rest of Egypt and with its own rules and lifestyle, therefore it’s highly unlikely this area will be subject to an alcohol ban,” he added. “It’s marginally more likely that a ban could be introduced which would include the Upper Egypt resorts of Luxor and Aswan – in the belief that tourists will continue to visit there whether there’s alcohol available or not.”
Richard Spencer, the Telegraph’s Middle Eastern correspondent, agreed that economic considerations meant immediate change was unlikely, but said the long-term future remains unclear. He said: “If the liberal opposition falls apart, as it is on the verge of doing, the main opposition will be the hardline Salafi movement,” he said. “That will jeopardise alcohol, clubs, the tourist industry. The Salafis are already talking about segregated beaches and concentrating on ‘religious and medical tourism’.”
While Egypt suffered from a sharp fall in overseas visitors following the Arab Spring, recent figures suggest that the country is beginning to find favour again – despite continuing unrest.
An estimated 11.5 million holidaymakers took a break there last year – including around one million Britons – up by 17 per cent on 2011, although still down from the 14.7 million who visited in 2009. A report by the tour operator Hayes & Jarvis this week suggested that resurgence is continuing, with Egypt among its top ten selling destinations for the first time in three years.
The Foreign Office currently advises against all but essential travel to most of the Sinai Peninsular, including St Catherine’s Monastery, but not the major resorts of Sharm El Sheikh, Taba, Nuweiba and Dahab, due to recent attacks and kidnappings by Bedouin tribesmen.
Visitors to the rest of Egypt are advised to avoid demonstrations and exercise caution.