DIPLOMACY - INTERVIEW
Ambassador of Egypt in Hungary
Interview of Szilvia Szeszler
Quite long time has passed since the last event held at the Egyptian Embassy as all of the events had to be postponed due to the epidemic situation as occurred elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, economic and tourism have been affected, therefore, we were keen to enquire about Egypt’s updates. The following interview with his Excellency Mr. Ashraf Elmoafi, Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt in Hungary, provided us with the updates about the current situation in Egypt. During the interview, he kindly shared with us all needed information about establishing new tourist’s resorts on the North-West coast, the launch of new plane flights to outstanding Egyptian touristic destinations, establishing new airports, the construction completion of the Grand Egyptian Museum and the latest information about its official opening. The prominent bilateral projects such as the railway coaches deal, the gas export and import, the current cooperation between both diplomatic institutes, water management and other important topics of bilateral cooperation.
– In spite of the hard circumstances there were some significant novelties and changes in tourism life in Egypt, as I know.
– Indeed, our national company Egyptair has started, in October, direct flights between Hurghada (on the Red Sea) and Budapest in addition to the one flight between Cairo and Budapest. Before the pandemic, We used to operate 4 flights per week, then they had been reduced to 2 flights and sometimes only one flight, depending on the number of the passengers. Luckely, since last October we started this new flight between Hurghada and Budapest once a week on Saturday. In fact, We were a little bit hesitant to start this new flight destination in October due to the high period of epidemic, but we were encouraged by people who were looking to travel abroad after a long period of lockdown. I have met many Hungarians and received calls from Hungarian people asking how to go to Egypt. We understand and respect , of course, the preventive measures taken by the government to protect the Hungarian citizens.
- Would you like to increase it for two flights? Because Hungarians are so happy that can travel again and it is also holiday season, so I’m sure those flights would be all full.
- Recently Egyptair launched a second flight to Hurghada every Sunday due to the successful outcomes achieved by the first flight to Hurghada, to the extent that they even have overpassed Cairo’s flight charts. On other hand, We also study the possibility to operate an other direct flight to Sharm el Sheikh which is also a very popular destination among Hungarians.
Previously numerous charters flights were operating between Budapest and the Egyptian sea-side destinations.
- There were many charter flights, some of them have resumed. Now it becomes easier to have regular flights in the new conditions which are prevailing recently, nevertheless still related to the evolution of the situation. In July 2019, Egypt started its touristic compaign. We have opened 3 governorates or provinces on the Red Sea, North Western Coast and Southern Sinai for the tourists taking into accounts very strict sanitary measures. We began with restaurants, hotels and cafes with maximum 25 % occupancy. As it worked well, we increased it to 50 %. The tourist who missed doing the PCR test before travelling and arrived to Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada, can do it at the airport upon arrival for 30 dollars, which is not expensive. They have only to show in which hotel they are staying and the airport reception will communicate with the hotel.
If someone is infected, with hard symptoms, he has to stay in the hospital, but if he has mild symptoms, he will stay at the hotel, noting that every hotel has one floor empty especially for people who may get infected in order to be isolated in his/her room free of charge till he/she gets well. The experience is working very well. Furthermore, all the staff who is working in the hotels, restaurants, cafes and all the tourism sector have been vaccinated.
Worth to mention that these 3 governorates have a very low density of population and rate of infection and now we are getting out from the waves of pandemic, starting maybe last April we received 525 000 tourists monthly, which is close to 45 % of the turnover before the pandemic and this rate is much higher than in many other countries which depend on tourism. It is to be noted as well that Egypt ranks fourth in the index of “life returning to normal after Corona”, conducted by the British Economist magazine.
- I would like to ask you about the new siteseen that worth to be visited, the Grand Egyptian Museum, the continuous new excavations where more treasures of the ancient Egypt are explored.
- The Grand Egyptian Museum is supposed to be inaugurated in the second half of the current year. It was planned to be opened last autumn in 2020 but due to the pandemic, we had to postpone it. All the Egyptian concerned authorities intend to make its openining a grandiose event, as to befit the biggest museum in the world. It has been built near to the pyramids. An electric train line, on the west side of Cairo, is being erected to transport the tourists from the new international airport to the pryramids and back. Cairo is a big hub for several airline companies, therefore passengers waiting for several hours on transit, instead of sitting at the airport and waiting for their following flight, can get on board on the electric train to spend their transit time in the museum then go back to catch their following flight.
In the context of the ongoing preparations for the official inauguration, invitations will be sent to high dignitaries around the world and several renowned people from different fields of activities. You might have followed the event of the convoy of the mummies from the Cairo Museum to the new Civilization Museum. It was a well organized and impressive event and left a significant impact worldwide. Personally, I receveid several phone calls from friends here in Hungary to transmit their admiration. Also, for the first time, there was a song performed in the ancient egyptian language which we were keen to downloaded on the Embassy’s Facebook page, you can listen to it through our page where we have displayed this marvelous song, performed by an Egyptian stunning soprano and we were keen to write down the words meaning in Hungarian language.
Back to the Grand Museum, the Tutankhamon collection which its total number of pieces is almost 5700 pieces, will be a must see for all interested tourists. The present Egyptian Museum is wonderful but is crowded with artifacts which will be well displayed there because the new museum will provide enough spaces to well display each artifact and admire every piece.
- Does it differs much from the present used language in Egypt?
- Yes, to a large extent, only specialists can read it. However few current words originate from the ancient egyptian language.
- You mentioned the new airport, which part of the turnover will it handle?
- Definitely, we plan to well benefit from the new airport where the pyramids and the Grand Museum lay near to it and the passengers who are transiting or landing will have an easy access to visit it. I still do not have the schedule to know which airline companies will be landing and departing at this airport but sure it will be managed in a very regular way to assist the passengers and boost the tourism.
- Would it be possible that those flights departing from here to reach the seaside destinations could stop at this airport then continue their way to their internal destinations?
- It could be possible, we are looking for the maximum use and efficiency of this investment.
- Would it be possible to visit the new excavations or are they separated from the visitors?
- The treasures at those places are under study and preparations, noting that they help to understand more and more the ancient Egyptian civilization but they will be introduced gradually to the general audience.
- Let us know, please, more about the economic cooperations between our countries. I was reading about 700 hundred railway cars to send from Hungary to Egypt. What other agreements were made and on what fields? What other possibilities do you see in the future?
- The railway wagons were the biggest contract that was concluded between us, it is about 1300 coaches. It is executed between Egypt and a consortium of Hungary and Russia. Let me tell you an interesting story about it. The Hungarian train has a great reputation in our country and from the sixties even today when people say "I’m travelling using the Hungarian", it means I am taking the fast train. It is a very good example for our cooperation, you know our two countries always had excellent relations but in the last six years it is even much stronger. The leaders of the two countries exchanged visits many times, Prime Minister Orbán went to Cairo in 2016 and President El Sisi visited Hungary in 2015 and 2017. Then, Prime Minister Orbán participated in a summit in February 2019 in Sharm El Sheikh between the Arab League Heads of State and the European Union Leaders. In the same year, at the end of November-beginning of December, President János Áder went to Cairo in an official visit, and he extended it with a private one to Luxor to visit a Hungarian excavation. I think he got a very good impression there. Thus, it is normal and natural that the excellent cooperation on political level, is reflected on the economic and commercial field and the cultural sector as well.
This contract is a huge one which is being accomplished very well now, this is one good news, the second good news is that recent talks are under way to expand the current deal. There are several other areas of cooperation where we are working to develop such as the field of energy for example.
Egypt is a big exporter of gas, since the biggest gas field on the Mediterranean was discovered few years ago on the Egyptian territorial waters and we have two big plants for liquifying gas and exporting it by LNG ships. We have signed a memorandum of understanding between Egypt and Hungary in 2020 to cooperate in the field of energy and especially in gas; and since Hungary is importing 80 % of its gas from outside, it is a good opportunity to diversify the hungarian sources. Recently, Hungary has several ways from Croatia, Slovenia, Romania to import gas using the crossing pipelines which will be efficient for both of us.
The gas fields discovery redirect our economy towards the export-oriented system. We are not depending on gas export only but it is a fact that it has become an important factor in the economy and gave a strong boost in it. Another element in our economy is the Suez Canal where one-third of the ship traffic takes place.
Egypt is developing energy industry, as well. In Egypt the sun is shining 365 days a year, therefore, we have been building and starting to operate one of the biggest solar power plant in the world, it is close to Aswan and called Binben. It will generate electricity nearly as much as the High Dam in Asswan. It is a huge project and there is a Hungarian company participating in it. We have, however, not only the advantages of the sun, we hardly have rain, so we depend on the water of the Nile strongly. We have a shortage of water. In the ancient times Herodot, the famous philosopher said: Egypt is the gift of the Nile. We are depending on the Nile and try to avoid any loss of water thus, we are recycling water several times, we have to do it as we are a 100 million people population.
- On what other territories do we have collaboration? How is the water management for example?
- On the field of water management you have a good expertise. The Egyptian Minister of Water Resources met his counterpart during the last Water Summit in October, 2019. Then, we had several interesting and fruitful meetings with Hungarian officials, and we are working currently to improve the mutual cooperation in this field. Both of our countries have important rivers, you have the Danube and several other rivers, we have the Nile thus it can formulate an excellent domain of cooperation.
We have signed a memorandum of understanding between the newly established Diplomatic Academy of Hungary and the Egyptian Diplomatic Institute which is 55 years old and provides trainings to the Egyptian Diplomats. We have agreement with several European, Asian, African countries, and exchange programs, we receive diplomats from foreign countries, they attend our programs, they take lectures and presentations not only about the Egyptian State and diplomacy but they also get acquinted with the Arab and the African world, they can visit the Arab League in Cairo and they can attend also lectures there. Meanwhile, our diplomats can come and have program in the Hungarian Diplomatic Academy on Hungary and Central Europe, as well.
Hungary also launched its strategy for Africa in 2019. Most of international actors are very interested in the speedy development of African economies, there are lot of opportunities to be developed and invested. Egypt has long and deep experience in Africa, we are an African country and we have our companies working there since the sixties. A lot of Egyptian institutions are devoted to achieve cooperation with Africa, for example, the Egyptian Agency of Partnership for development is establishing bilateral and trilateral cooperation between Egypt and Hungary and several African States in the frame of mutually benefitial Egyptian, Hungarian cooperation.
- May we know more about the new developments in tourism sector?
- There are various new developments in tourism sector. The Northern coast has excellent beaches of white sands. It was initially built in local dimensions. Now it is being developed on an international scale to become a tourist attraction destination. There is also a new smart city called, El Alamein, which is built there, the whole coast will become soon a very interesting and attracting touristic point. The Red Sea coast is well known with all its scuba diving sports and other water sports opportunities but the Northern Coast will become as attractive as the Red Sea. Many of the other mediterranean beaches are rocky and stony but you will find the very refined white sands in this northern Egyptian coast and water is light-blue and turqoise, really fantastic.
- Let me ask some personal things, what places did you visit here in Hungary, which of them do you like best, what is your opinion about us, Hungarians?
- Hungarian people are very nice and when I delt with them in the shops or in the streets they were always very helpful in fact. Even if they don’t speak English, they try to help, I really like it. You have a great country and there are so many things to see starting from the capital where palaces and monuments reveal its rich past, and also in the countryside you have so many areas to visit. Unfortunately for one and a half year we were confined, but in spite of it we organized a visit to the University of Pécs where we had an Egyptian Cultural Day, I visited different places also as Veszprém, Szeged and Miskolc and certainly the famous Balaton. The food is also very tasty, my favourite hungarian dish, is Goulash which I thought first that it was just a soup not a main dish, but later I understood it is a traditional complete meal.