Dangerous activists and anxious public officials have not dampened the Egyptian rally community’s passion for desert races.
Claes Raben, a Danish interior designer based in Cairo, abruptly hijacks his Jeep from the highway and heads for the rugged terrain of Egypt’s ruthless eastern desert.
âI packed a shisha and a few beers, just in case these guys take a while to come back,â he says. I had hitchhiked just after sunrise from the resort town of El Gouna to join a motley convoy, heading to an agreed point about a mile inland from the Red Sea.
Here, under a steep hill, these obscure coordinates would serve as both the start and end of April. El Gouna Rally Special, the last part of the Egyptian national rally raid championship.
Raben begins heating coals for the shisha as his wife, Dalia Abou-Senna, unwraps a generous spread of sandwiches, dips and pastries. Such is the quiet lot of the rally raid beholder, who rises at dawn to cheer on an eclectic mix of modified cars and dune buggies, to watch them plunge into the horizon, vanish into a distant adventure.
But in a country gripped by paranoia about the security threats hidden in the desert – some real, some imagined – even getting to the starting line is a victory.
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Rally races have a proud history in Egypt. In 1982, a group of European car enthusiasts organized the first Pharaohs Rally– a grueling multi-day hike that usually started in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The international event drew teams from all over the world, with many seeing it right after the Dakar Rally as the sport’s most formidable test.
But a series of ugly incidents threatened the very existence of the Egyptian rally scene. In 2013, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi launched a crackdown on Islamist terrorists in the northern Sinai desert, which remains mired in armed conflict. Violence also erupted sporadically in the Western Desert; the insurgents operating there led a deadly attack on Egyptian police forces no later than October 2017.
In 2015, the Egyptian armed forces unintentionally opened fire on a group of Mexican tourists during an anti-militant operation in the Western Desert, killing twelve and injuring ten. The military said tourists were in a no-go area at the time of the incident.
Haunted by this human tragedy and public relations disaster, the government has placed even tighter restrictions on access to the Western Desert, a sprawling wonderland of verdant oases, mountain dunes and swift sand tracks. Today, rallies can only take place in the Eastern Desert – the eastern expanse of the Nile extending towards the Red Sea – which offers neither the enormous scale nor the varied terrain of the west. .
Competitors reel anxiously before the El Gouna Rally Special, confirming the last instructions and finishing the last cigarettes. The starting grid takes shape, the engines roar and the vehicles soon disappear from view.
The hatchback fans, Egyptian style, while competitors sweat under racing suits and intense competitive pressure. Each co-pilot calls out frantic directions as the vehicles negotiate a winding 164-mile course around rocky outcrops and impassable valleys.
The occasional dispatch of walkie-talkies gives fans flashes of information about the drama unfolding in the desert. A car crashes, causing serious thumb injuries to the co-pilot. Another team soon stops to help, sacrificing precious time and focus.
About four hours later, a monstrous red and black buggy reappears on the horizon as suddenly as it is gone, hurtling down the dunes to take first place. Rahhala Total Racing Team has dominated the Egyptian rally scene in recent years, and this latest triumph comes as no surprise.
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Weeks later I caught with Ahmed Sergany, who runs the Egyptian national rally championship with Alain BesanÃ§on, in the garish shopping center of Cairo. His eyes sparkle as he recalls the golden age of racing in the Egyptian desert.
âThe rally in Egypt was once a cross-country, literally! Said Sergey. “The [Rallye des] Pharaoh organizers could point anywhere on the map and go.
In any country, planning a rally raid event poses logistical challenges. Sergany, a professional jeweler, devotes countless hours to developing the route for each race and generating the all-important road book, an instruction manual setting out the coordinates, contours and dangers of the trail in great detail. . âThat’s the fun part,â Sergeny says.
Much less enjoyable is the struggle for racial clearance from the Egyptian government, an administrative giant notorious – at best – for its opaque and often impenetrable procedures. âGetting the permits is hell,â Sergany says.
For weeks before each race, Sergany must coax no less than eight separate state entities into authorizing the event to be held. Permit applications require precise coordinates of the proposed route, detailed evacuation plans and identification documents for each member of the team, which currently totals around 200 people.
After jumping through these bureaucratic hoops, the most brutal sting lingers in the tail of the process. Sergany and her rally colleagues have to wait until 5 p.m. the day before each rally to receive final approval from the Egyptian military, which is free to cancel the event. Competitors, support crews and spectators had all walked a start line deep in the Western Desert in 2015, only for the military to withdraw their clearance the day before the rally.
Most people would be open to having tracking devices on our cars, for example, if that meant we could use the desert again.
That same year, the International Pharaohs Rally was interrupted. Egyptian state newspaper Al Ahram criticized the FÃ©dÃ©ration Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), which oversees the international rally raid, for having canceled without a valid reason. In Sergany’s opinion, the FIA âânaturally refused to commit sponsor money for the event without firm assurances, well in advance, that it would take place.
I speak with Omar Amin, who drives for the Amino Brothers team alongside his co-pilot and brother, Hesham, at an upscale restaurant in Cairo. âThe military might be doing the right thing, but it could do more to make our sport easier,â he said.
Amin acknowledges that the government faces considerable security threats in the Western Desert, which stretches from the Nile Valley to Libya, Egypt’s lawless neighbor. Smugglers have long crossed the porous border between countries, but now drugs and weapons have replaced cigarettes and electronics as the contraband of choice.
The situation has calmed down somewhat recently: no fatal attacks have been reported in the Western Desert this year. But Amin believes some public officials remain anxious, preferring to impose sweeping safety rules for fear another incident could occur. He gives the example of rally drivers communicating only via walkie-talkies because long-range radio frequencies are locked for military use.
âNational security is important all over the world, but you should at least try to find solutions,â Amin says. “Most people would be open to the idea of ââhaving tracking devices on our cars, for example, if that meant we could use the desert again.”
Egyptian rally riders are not the only desert enthusiasts grappling with the increased security restrictions. Only very limited areas of the Western Desert remain open to the general public, with virtually no possibility of overnight camping. This seriously dented desert tourism, which once enjoyed lucrative day-long adventure tours.
Hany Amr, the owner of Desert Adventures Egypt, tells me when I speak to him on the phone that some travel agencies still take groups outside of the permitted areas in the Western Desert. âThey’re taking a big risk,â Amr says. âIf something happens, it won’t just be bad for tourism, it will be bad for the whole country. “
Amr has already seen the impact of the tourism downturn on desert communities, with locals selling their jeeps and switching careers. Some went into mining and farming. For others, the rampant contraband trade offers a tempting source of income.
In other countries, we are looking for waves, but here, we are looking for dunes.
For many Egyptians, the desert was more than a place to earn money and race cars. Its awe-inspiring emptiness and soothing silence provide a welcome respite from Cairo and the tiresome onslaught of bustle, stress and horns of Cairo and Alexandria.
Now middle-aged, Sergany remembers his first encounters with the desert, when he and his teenage friends would cook outdoor barbecues and tackle the terrain in their cars. âIn other countries they are looking for waves,â explains Sergany, âbut here we are looking for dunes.
This deep affection makes the loss of the desert much more difficult to bear. âFive years ago, I didn’t think I couldn’t go to the desert,â he adds. âPeople’s eyes stay glassy when they think about it. “
Yet, against all odds, the rally raiding community in Egypt is growing. A record 13 teams took part in this year’s El Gouna special, up from nine last year. The government has tentatively cleared another race for later in 2018.
Now Sergany wants to attract foreign participants to Egyptian national gatherings, starting with the country’s Gulf neighbors. Beyond that, there are faint murmurs that the Pharaohs Rally may one day return, bringing full international competition back to the Egyptian sands.
âThe last few years have been incredibly difficult for us,â says Sergany. “But I have a lot of hope for the future.”