"Hello, Mr Hurd. We're from Witney."
"When did you book this holiday?"
"Just a day or two after the terrorist shootings. We thought that Luxor would now be one of the safest places in the world to take a holiday."
In the spring sunshine, exploring the Valley of the Queens, astounded once again by the huge pillars at Karnak, and walking the elegant, empty corridors of the Winter Palace Hotel, it was hard to disagree with my former constituents. I was there with an American and an Italian colleague to look at the security precautions which the Egyptians put in place after the shooting of tourists in Luxor last November. We visited the three sites that attract the greatest number of tourists: the Pyramids and the Sphinx, the Egyptian museum in Cairo, and Luxor. We can say nothing about other sites, and of course no one can guarantee safety at any site, but we were impressed by the thoroughness of the Egyptian reaction to that disaster.
President Mubarak at once sacked his minister of the interior, the governor of Luxor, and others whom he held responsible for the security failure last November. New, brisk, serious men have been installed in their place. Each of the sites now has a security plan including control of access, completely new systems of patrolling, unity of command and communications, and new attention to the quality and training of the security forces.
At first the remaining tourists complained that the security presence was too oppressive. So the sharp-shooters have been removed from obvious positions, and you have to look carefully at the hillsides to spot them and the small tents which are their homes. It is reassuring rather than alarming to see camel patrols of armed police moving in line among the dunes behind the Pyramids.
It was a strange experience to be briefed in one ear by a lady archaeologist about the latest discoveries, and simultaneously in the other ear by the police general about his security plan. We were struck by how ready the Egyptians were to receive ideas from outside.
In our report to the new minister of the interior, we emphasised above all the need for consistency. It is one thing to have in place new systems and new men to execute them. It is another to maintain those systems and those men in full effectiveness after six or 12 months without further incident. Staleness leads to slackness, to the cutting of corners, to a lapse back into the dozy ways of the past.
The Egyptians have made an impressive effort. They know that they have to regain confidence in the security of the main tourist attractions if they are to save the livelihoods of the thousands of Egyptians whose jobs depend on visitors.
At the moment Luxor is an amazingly attractive place to visit, without crowds, without noise. The Egyptians hope that the crowds will return. Their success will depend on constant testing and supervision of the men and methods now in place.
The second British couple I met in Luxor came from Leeds. This was the fifth visit which the mother had made to what she considers the most extraordinary sight in the world.
"Now at last I understand what Mum's been going on about all these years," said the daughter.
That is the reaction which the Egyptians hope for. They deserve luck, and will above all need persistence to keep it that way.
Lord Hurd is a former foreign secretary, and was MP for East Oxfordshire, and later Witney, from 1974 to 1997.Reuse content