By Amina El Fayoumy

El-Sahel’s 250-kilometer strip has become the prime summer destination for Egypt’s upper and upper-middle classes.  But just how did it come to be that the summer go-to destination for Cairenes is a strip of beach on the North Coast that is abandoned for 10 months of the year?

[dropcap color=”#000″ ]E[/dropcap]xclusive compounds dot the North Coast of Egypt; over the years, they have become a social bubble, bringing together the country’s more privileged in lavish gated surroundings.  To a large extent, these compounds have come to demonstrate a distinct paradigm of the vast economic and social divide that has grown in Egypt over the last three decades.  Every time they felt their exclusivity, privacy or isolation was at stake, Egypt’s crème de la crème would migrate further west along the Mediterranean coastline, which stretches all the way to Libya.

In the 1970s, Egypt’s elite took refuge in their summer villas and flats in Alexandria during July and August.  They would use private cabanas on exclusive beaches inside in Al Montazah palace, namely Aida, Cleopatra and Semiramis.  As hundreds of thousands of ‘average’ Egyptians began flocking to the coastal city, the crowd gradually moved westward, Agami-bound, away from Alexandria’s hustle and bustle.

El-Agami, still a serene virgin shore, had become the destination of choice for Egypt’s rich and famous by the mid 1980s.  El-Fardous or Paradise Beach became the place to be for those who wanted to rub shoulders with the country’s famous celebrities, powerful politicians, and wealthy businessmen. 

El-Agami was notorious for its wild and exclusive parties at Summer Moon, Andrea and private estates, and celebrity gossip was common in the months that followed.

By the mid-1990s, two public beaches had surrounded the private Paradise Beach on both sides.  Construction was booming in El-Agami; hundreds of medium-rise buildings packed with thousands of middle class families gradually surrounded the beautiful villas that marked El-Agami’s narrow, tree-lined alleys.  Egypt proper was closing in on upper class Egypt, defying El-Agami’s raison d’etre.

Once again, Egypt’s upper classes migrated westwards.

Some families bought plots of land from the local Bedouin tribes and built private villas in Abu Talat and Sidi Kreir vicinity, just a few kilometers away from El-Agami.  Over time, scattered “touristic villages” (or resorts), with simple designs and basic facilities began to appear in the area.

The Ministry of Housing and Development built two mega compounds, Marakiya and Marbella, on tens of kilometers of sandy beaches, selling thousands of units to public sector employees, armed forces and police officers, and other members of the country’s then-rapidly growing middle class.  These major construction projects eventually became too ‘different’ from the early compounds, and the westward journey began once again, where AMER Group’s Marina became a popular summer destination for both middle and upper class Egyptians.

The construction of Wadi El Natroun/Alamein Highway saved travellers up to 40 kilometers on the original Borg El Arab Route.  As the area flourished, many compounds were built around Marina and the veteran Diplomats’ Village (Diplomassiyyeen).  Demand skyrocketed and, naturally, prices followed. 

New compounds of much higher quality and standards began to appear near El-Alamein, Sidi Abdel Rahman and Marsa Matrouh.  Today, renowned developers such as Emaar, Palm Hills Developments and Galala compete to position their compounds as the new place to be. 

In the meantime, The Ministry of Transportation has been working on yet another highway to link El Wahat Road in 6th of October City in Cairo directly to Sidi Abdel Rahman, making resorts in stretches like Sidi Heneish more accessible to vacationers further down the coastline.

Egypt’s North Coast could have developed differently; it could have been a sort of French Riviera of the Middle East, had it not been for lack of planning.  Over the years, obstructive construction schemes that aimed to fit as many chalets into one plot have blocked the sea view for non-owners or renters of chalets.  Developed randomly and without any proper planning, the azure coast – which was never perceived as a destination for international tourism – lacks the quintessential Riviera-style corniche or recreational promenade.

The North Coast’s highly stratified, upper middle class compounds gradually developed their own culture, allowing younger generation to express a more liberal value system.  Today, vacationers dress to impress, boasting well-toned muscular figures, and party late into the night at exclusive clubs that cater only to those who can afford them.  New restaurants and clubs open every year to accommodate the growing crowds who are eager to see and be seen. 

Much like Agami once was, the North Coast is a bubble – or rather a collection of bubbles.  Unlike Agami, it caters equally to the upper and middle classes, although its exclusive compounds do not support mixing and common public spaces that are accessible to all are practically non-existent. 

In spite of the sharp stratification that characterizes vacationing on the North Coast, crowds continue to flock to the azure Mediterranean coastline to enjoy its soft white sand beaches.  Not quite the French Riviera, Egypt’s sahel remains a stunning getaway for Egyptians. p