Why I Felt Comfortable Spending Two Nights Inside a Military Zone in Cairo

Note: The area in Cairo that is the subject of this post was an anomaly, as it was directly in the center of the recent protests. The rest of Cairo was its normal wonderfully chaotically calm self.

After months of media reports on the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath, it may seem as if violent demonstrations and protests are second nature to Egyptians. After all, this country is in the dangerous and volatile Middle East, right? What besides revolution can you expect from its people? Actually, Egypt is not now violent at all and Egyptians are not accustomed to turmoil. The surprising ordeal I undertook to check into my hostel two weeks ago in Cairo gave me a tiny bit of insight into how unusual the current situation is for the Egyptian people.

Several members of the Egyptian Army standing in full riot gear in front of the entrance to Mohammed Mahmoud Street in Cairo

Mohammed Mahmoud Street, leading to Tahrir Square

Cairo was behaving as its normal wonderful bustling with chaos self as my Egyptian friend and I took a subway ride from one end to the other then walked through its streets on the way to the Cecilia Hotel two Fridays ago. I’d stayed at this hostel, on El Falaky Street, the only other time I’d been to Cairo, in October 2009, and knew it was a ten-minute walk from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Egyptian Revolution. However, I didn’t realize that it stood directly on Mohammed Mahmoud Street which, like Tahrir, was ground zero not only to the revolution but mid-November’s renewed demonstrations in which 42 people were killed and many others permanently blinded by a police sniper who shot out people’s eyes. As my friend and I neared the hostel, we came to a barricaded street where we had to show our passports to a solider before passing any further. We then began our walk through subsequent streets sealed off with 10-foot-high concrete blocks, barbed wire, soldiers and army tanks.

Massive amounts of barbed wire closing off a street near Tahrir Square in Cairo

El Falaky Street which runs through Mohammed Mahmoud Street in Cairo

I was shaking by the time we finished walking through this war zone. Not out of fear but because I’d never experienced anything remotely like this in my life. Are you sure you want to do this? asked my Egyptian friend, as we stood inside the front door of the hostel, waiting for the elevator to the lobby. The most stoical person I’ve ever known, even he was a bit shaken by what we’d just seen. No, I said, I’m not sure. As we tried to shake thoughts of city streets occupied with tanks out of our heads, we turned to notice several Egyptian soldiers lying on the floor inside the door, wool blankets pulled over their heads in an attempt to sleep. I knew I couldn’t think properly in this setting. Let’s just go upstairs, have coffee and see how I feel then, I said.

Concrete barricade sealing off Mohammed Mahmoud Street from Tahrir Square in Cairo

Barrier blocking Mohammed Mahmoud Street

This is worse than I thought it would be, I said to the smiling man at the Cecilia’s front desk as I got off the elevator with visions of tanks still dancing in my head. But you are so safe here. If anyone tries to mess with you on the street, it is over in one minute, said the man, Mohammed, trying to put a positive spin on the situation.

A car destroyed by fire on mohamed mahmoud street in Cairo, Egypt

Burned-out car on Mohammed Mahmoud Street

While the once unknown Tahrir Square and Mohammed Mahmoud Street are now famous worldwide due to the revolution, they are still just old, familiar neighborhood names for locals. This is very unusual for us, the Cecilia’s manager Waleed pointed out to me as we stood on the balcony taking in the sight of streets usually throbbing with careening Cairo traffic but now barricaded and barren. What he said and the way all of these people had acted then really hit me. Egyptians aren’t snuggled up warm and cozy next to memories of their revolution and thoughts of a changing Egypt. Many of them are just as shaken by what’s happening in their country as Americans would be if we went through a similar situation in ours. While it’s easy for us to watch them struggling all the way across the world and say Isn’t that awful, they actually have to live through the change, come up with coping mechanisms and solutions just to survive in their new uncertain world.

A bombed-out building at the corner of Mohammed Mahmoud Street and Al Falaky Street in Cairo

Corner of Mohammed Mahmoud and El Falaky Streets in Cairo

One cup of coffee and lots of talk later, I decided I would stay at the Cecilia Hotel despite its current unfortunate location. Knowing that Egyptians are having to do something far more difficult than sleeping inside a military zone for a couple of nights made the decision not so difficult after all.

A three-bed room at the Cecilia Hostel, Cairo

My favorite room at the Cecilia Hostel

5 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Steve says:

    I’d be shaken after walking through that area too. I know it is probably safe, but you don’t know what could happen at any minute. You got to experience something really unique (at least for people outside of Egypt).

  2. Sabina says:

    I could not believe it. It was just surreal. I’m really glad I got to experience it, but it’s unique for the Egyptians too. My Egyptian friend was pretty unnerved and the guys working in the hostel were only used to it because the streets had been closed for a couple of weeks. I trust they’ll be back to normal soon.

  3. Jaime says:

    Thank you for this post. I will actually be in Egypt in a few weeks. I have not booked a flight yet, but I will be coming to from Turkey. I am not sure if I should fly into Alexandria make my way around the country see what I wanna see then up to Cairo for a bit before heading off to Dehab to head over to Jordan. I plan on spending a month in Egypt. How did you arrive in Cairo? Did you even get to explore any of it or make it to the Pyramids? Did you see other tourist?

  4. Sabina says:

    Hi Jaime, Thanks a lot for commenting. This was my third time in Egypt. The first time I traveled here in 2009 I flew into Cairo, where I stayed for five days. From there I took a day trip to Alexandria and visited the pyramids.

    I’m currently living in Dahab for a while, and it is from here that I made my second trip to Cairo, which is the focus of this post. There are tourists here in Dahab, although locals tell me the number of tourists have really decreased since the revolution. There are enough Western tourists and expats here, though, for you to probably meet and hang out and certainly enough for you to fit in. You won’t be the only white person in Dahab by a long shot, for sure. As far as Cairo when I went a few weeks ago I didn’t see many tourists, to be honest with you.

    It would probably be best for you to fly into Cairo or Alexandria, then make your way south from there to Luxor, Aswan, Hurghada or whereever else you’re planning to go, then take a bus or minivan into the Sinai. Alternatively, Sharm el Sheikh, which is the southern-most town in the Sinai, has a good airport, so if you can find a cheaper flight there you could start your Egyptian journey in Sharm, travel north throughout the rest of the Sinai, then via bus or minivan to the rest of Egypt, ending in Alex or Cairo. If you do that, though, you’d probably have to then fly into Jordan.

    I have two other posts about my Cairo trip and many posts about Egypt, if you want to do a search for them. I hope this was helpful. Please let me know if you have any other questions.

  5. Jaime says:

    Thank you very much for this information! It will help me when I start planning… I am going to do so this week for sure. I will get on it. Ahh the situation down there is just horrible, it really breaks my heart. I’m looking forward to the most are the deserts and the southern part of Egypt. I am sure those aren’t affected by whats going on so I should be fine. I will let ya know if I need anything else.

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