Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reflections on Egypt and Israel

Reflections on Egypt in Transition

The Bryan Group left Dallas bound for Dallas via Frankfort at  4:30 pm on Thursday, January 27.  En route, conditions in Egypt deteriorated rapidly. On Friday, January 28, the US State Department issued a warning about traveling to Egypt.  Following Friday prayers, an insurrection had exploded, and there were riots in downtown Cairo, spilling over into all parts of Egypt.  When we landed in Cairo at 6:30 pm on Friday, we could not leave the airport.  A curfew had been put in place and our bus driver could not get there.  Two security contract employees representing the tour company did come to stay with us and try to get us out and to the hotel.  Cell and internet service had been shut down, so Pilgrim Tours personnel could not communicate with each other or the US.  There was no place to sit and people were accumulating rapidly.  We realized there would be shortages of water there, as we could not drink the tap water.  So we got in a long line to buy lots of water at the airport store. 
Eventually, the two guards got permission for them to transport us in their own personal small cars, two or three at a time.  The hotel was about 10 minutes away, and we arrived there about 8:45, and ate a late dinner. When we got to the hotel, one of the group called the tour company using the hotel phone to let them know we arrived; they were so relieved to hear from us because they could not reach their staff, and although they knew the plane had landed, they knew we had not arrived at the hotel.  Our children were also trying to reach us and could not.  They had left messages at the hotel, which we never received, but finally my son Mark contacted us in our room and told us the Cairo situation.  He told me "Cairo is burning; maybe you should get out of Cairo."  I looked out the window, and could see no fires, but did see that the hotel had placed barriers (see picture above) and were circulating them, keeping watch on the hotel.  We could not do anything that night, so just went to bed and tried to sleep.  Sleep was interrupted by the crowd noise in the street. 
Saturday morning, we met for breakfast, and talked to Pilgrim representatives in Cairo who assured us that things would settle down soon.  However, cell service was still down, and they could not take us anywhere until they were sure things were open and safe.  We went to our rooms to watch CNN.  About 10:00, we decided to walk around the hotel area.  Cell service came on about that time and we received the myriad texts from family and friends warning us of the danger.  However, the Egyptian people we encountered on the walk were nice, smiled at us and said "welcome."  It seemed kind of peaceful, although there were long lines for bread, water and petrol.  We did not know if this was normal or unusual.  It was unusual, we later learned.  We returned to the hotel to eat lunch, and the local guides and security personal hired by Pilgrim assured us that if we would just wait, it would get better.  They were very hopeful.  Being optimists ourselves, we hoped they were right.
During the afternoon, we watched CNN showing continuing violence downtown, looting of the Egyptian Museum that we were to visit, riots in Alexandria where we were to have been that day, and beginning violence in the Suez and Jordan where we were to go next.  Mid-afternoon, the hotel evacuated the lobby and pulled the bar staff in their waiters’ aprons to help establish barricades around the hotel and defend it with pipes, baseball bats, chains, sticks, anything they could find, and we as a group decided maybe we had better leave Cairo.  I called our emergency contact with Pilgrim Tours, and he concurred we should leave.  We decided as a group that if we could go to Israel to continue our trip there, that would be our first choice.  Our second choice was to come straight back to the US.  So the Pilgrim contact immediately began to work on this.  Meanwhile, the local guides tried to dissuade us from leaving.  They really thought it would get better, but also, if we left, they would have no work.
We had dinner, which was excellent, and drinks in a bar in the hotel.  The curfew had started, and we could not leave the hotel at this point.  We finally retired to our rooms to try to sleep, but had a restless night with gunfire, looters on the street in waves, and tanks going down the street in front of the hotel.  Our hotel was located in a so-called “nice” area of town, where Mubarak’s palace was, as well as many other nice homes, so Saturday night, there were many gangs of looters, loud shouting, banging of pipes on barriers, gunshots, and about 30 tanks came by the hotel. The hotel staff did not go home, but remained in the hotel due to the curfew and to protect it from looters on the street.  Our guide and security staff spent their nights guarding their own homes from the looters. We also got texts much of the night from friends and family in the US (it was afternoon and evening in the US, with 8 hours difference in time.) 

Sunday, our Pilgrim contact called to say he could get us to Israel on a Monday night flight on El Al where we could continue the Israel portion only.  On Sunday, the curfew was lifted at 10 am and started again at 4 pm.  While the curfew was lifted on Sunday, we could walk out on the front walk, but not beyond the corner.  We were not allowed to take  pictures; we had to do it discretely.  Meanwhile, we ate excellent meals, had a good bar, watched CNN, and texted on our iPhones.  Email was still not available.  Our Pilgrim contact in the US called to confirm our flights and what our pick up time would be on Monday.  Later, as we learned that the Monday curfew was changed to start earlier at 3:00, and we heard of people being at the airport for 10-12 hours before their flights got out, long security lines, etc. we asked to leave earlier.  Our local guide spent part of the afternoon Sunday giving us a little "vocal tour" of Egypt, which was very interesting, and while not what we hoped for, was still interesting.  He left in time to get home before his 4 pm Sunday curfew.  It was a great lecture, despite the fact that he was exhausted from working days and being up for two nights guarding his own premises.  He told us that he lived, as most Egyptians do, in an apartment complex.  He did not know many of the apartment tenants before the insurrection began, but the night before, all of them had assembled outside to protect their apartment. They brought food, drinks and chairs, and took shifts working.  He stated, “We worked together as Egyptians.  We want a democratic Egypt, and we deserve it.  We can fight to be good Egyptians.”  He assured us that we did not need to worry, that the people carrying pipes, bats and such were just protecting their property.  In my mind I said, “Vigilante groups mean anarchy.”
As we watched the situation deteriorating, we decided we had better have a back-up plan in case the commercial plane did not arrive.  We were hearing of lots of flight cancellations from people returning to the hotel for rooms after their flights were cancelled.  Airlines had cancelled many of the flights into Cairo. The hotel was full of people moving from downtown hotels (some of which we learned later had been looted and burned), coming back from the airport from cancelled flights or not able to get out.  Nevertheless, hotel staff was courteous and tried to be accommodating.  We communicated with our children via texts and got them to help us. Mark got us on the list to evacuate from Cairo, as we texted him all our pertinent information.  We tried to call the embassy in Cairo, and each of us had different experience, which varied from referring us to another phone number in the US, having no one answer, or giving us an email address to apply to. Remember, Egypt still had no email working.  Then we heard that the Monday US evacuation would only be for diplomats or medically ill.  No information was forthcoming on CNN or BBC on how to contact them in the airport, where the flights were originating, etc.  We just hoped we got out on El Al, as it became obvious the US State Department was going to be no help.  Mark worked for hours online during that night to complete the application process. We went to bed Sunday night packed and ready to go on a moment's notice if need be.  Some of the group slept in their clothes, but we all were prepared to be ready in a minute to vacate.  The looting and violence was quieter till about 4:00, but the hotel staff was still on duty outside. 
Monday, we got up and ate breakfast and met in the lobby.  We packed lots of snacks and water, as we were very much afraid that we would have none, and did not know how long we would be there. Our security staff and a driver for the tour company met us at the hotel to transport us at 11:00, and we made it to the airport in the dense traffic in about 30 minutes.  It is normally a 10 minute drive.  He had to park about a block from the airport to let us unload.  We hauled our luggage into the crowded airport, claimed a "spot" for our group, and began our camp out.  (See picture above.) There were long, long lines, crowds, and it was very, very loud and chaotic.  Contrary to reports, there was water and food available, although we just ate our snacks, so as not to get separated. The toilets were working, and lines to get into them relatively short.  The arrival/departure board never changed from the time we arrived, so we could not tell what planes were coming in and leaving.  We had no way at the airport to find out if El Al was coming or not.  So our children followed their flights and texted us that news, and a friend of one of the goup in Israel phoned him when it left.  We knew it was on its way.  Our security guard stayed in the airport to direct us, and had he not been there, we would have never found where we needed to be.  Tickets were not being sold in the airport; you had to have a ticket when you arrived.  KLM Airlines from France (near where we had parked our stuff) closed about the time we arrived.  I charged my phone in a closed Delta gate.  Our guard had our ticket information, and he had the ability to get behind the security lines and find out where our flights would be. 
At the right time, we went through the first security gate, where we were escorted (to the angry objections of others already in line) to the front of the line.  We waited another 2 hours at the counter for El Al’s Tel Aviv flight.  El Al does its own security, and the security guards were on the plane that was arriving.  They came in, set up their own security lines, and finally, we cleared their security and went through the third, Egyptian customs and security line.  We went to the gate, where waited again, until the Israeli security people again came to that gate and we cleared another security line.  We had to walk on the tarmac to the plane, and breathed a sigh of relief.  We were on board. 
We arrived at about 1:00 a.m. Tuesday morning in Tel Aviv, and were met at the airport by Pilgrim guide who took us to Netanya (arrived 2:30 a.m.)  for the night.  We departed there after breakfast at 8:00.  Our trip had finally begun!!!  Israel was a very interesting country.  It is complex, historical, spiritual, and multilayered in every context.  We stayed a week, and flew home without incident despite the cold and snow storms.
We are glad to be here. We thank ALL of you for your help, prayers, texts, and everything you did to get us here.  We felt your support, and it was so important.  We feel we were there at a very historic time for the Egyptian people, and while we wish we could have done our trip first and let them settle this later, we are hopeful for them. We found them to be a gracious, hopeful, industrious people who deserve a democracy and want it very much, willing to fight for it.  We will be anxious to watch them form their new government, and wish them the best.

We thank you for your concern, prayers and texts.  They meant a lot.