Egypt Update from Dr. Donald Reid

posted Feb 2, 2011, 11:50 PM by ARCE Northwest
The following is an onsite account of ARCE-NW Board member Dr. Donald Reid who recently returned from a trip to Egypt and his insights into what has been occurring -
 

Seattle, Feb. 1-2, 2011

Dear Family and Friends (does that sound like an AT&T calling plan or make you afraid that I might unfriend you?),

Thank you for all your calls and e-mails about Egypt and concern for where I might be during the upheaval.  As some of you know, I was with a University of Washington tour (alumni and friends) of Egypt scheduled for Jan. 14-30.

Since I don’t twitter, tweet, face, or blog, this is a rambly e-mail travelogue/ current events discussion which goes on at inordinate length.   You can read it, practice your skimming, skip it, or whatever, and I won’t blame you.   And no need to reply.  I started with the idea of sending it to family and a couple of friends and then sort of widened the imagined audience as I went, and am now thinking I’ll send it along to members of the travel group as well.  No doubt some of the  latter will of course have their own angles and perhaps corrections to some of my perceptions.  I’ll be writing the group later; maybe we have a closet geek in the group who would like to set up an electronic forum for sharing our musings, pictures, etc.   The alumni office will also be sending along a group picture or two and perhaps some other communications.

I haven’t proof read this carefully or looked up things I didn’t know, and it doesn’t pretend to profound analysis.  I’m resisting the temptation to surf the net for the latest news in order to finish this up Wednesday morning Feb 2 and will resist the urge to edit later to show how great I am at predicting.  A worm’s eye perception of a vast upheaval if you like, with tunnel vision, a bit of historical reflection, but no profound analysis or polished form.

For security purposes, I’m omitting the names of Egyptians (including our valiant tour director/guide who brought us through safely) and of foreigners resident in Cairo.

As it turned out for our group of 25, timing was extremely lucky.   We got to fulfill all our planned sight-seeing agenda and had a ring-side seat on the emerging revolution without being in danger or even very seriously inconvenienced (except for several who had seriously scary experiences before getting on the flight).  No nights spent on the airport floor, no wounded, and no complainers in our group; all calm and good natured.   The heroes were the Egyptian agents working for our tour group, Odysseys Unlimited, their affiliated Egyptian travel agency, and the Egyptians who have made and are still making the revolution.   The UW alumni association contracts with Odysseys, a modest-sized commercial outfit based in Boston.  Odysseys does all the business arrangements and hires the Egyptian tour director/guide who accompanies us throughout the time we are in the country.

This is the third January in a row that I’ve done this with UW alums, basically the same 16-day itinerary with only minor optional variations.   Three full days in Cairo (pyramids, Egyptian Museum, the mosque in the Citadel, Khan al-Khalili shopping, Coptic churches, a no-longer used synagogue), then flight to Aswan in the south (Upper Egypt, i.e. up-river) for a bus ride to the temple of Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser, 2 day boat ride on Lake Nasser back to Aswan with stops at other temples also moved to avoid flooding when High Dam was built, a day in Aswan, river cruise to Luxor, with stops at Kom Ombo and Edfu temples on the way, 4 nights and two full days in Luxor, flight to Cairo for bus to Alexandria, 2 nights and a full day in Alex, and back to Cairo for overnight and flight out.   An excellent package, and pretty strenuous.   Optional 5-day extension to Jordan highlighting Petra, which about 60% of our group took; the extension wasn’t offered to me.  

On board ship I gave two formal lectures (on 19th and 20th-century Egypt respectively, my choice of topic), and over the course of the trip we had three organized discussion sessions.   Otherwise, I’m on call for informal discussion most of the time.   I told them ahead of time, no exams and no pop quizzes (a tried and true technique for getting good teacher evaluations at the end).   Recommended reading was optional, and it was evident that more than half had done significant reading ahead of time. 

This was a good group, only 7 actual alums and the rest in the “friends” category.    One 25 year-old accompanying her parents and her mother’s sister.   One in mid 50s and one in mid 70s; all the others including me, aged 60-70.   Four medical doctors with various specialties, teachers, bankers, lawyer, 2 Weyerhauser employees, homemakers, an artist, etc.   Only a few started with me in Seattle, the others flying in from scattered parts of the US or joining the group at JFK airport in NY.  Eight were Chinese Americans.

Day 1 of the revolution, Tuesday, January 25, 2011 (Day 12 of our tour).   We’re at Luxor, the ship from Aswan having docked a little before midnight the night before.  Shouldn’t say “docked” because we tied up to a ship which was tied up to another, etc.   We walked through six other ships to get ashore.   West Bank sightseeing, Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut’s temple, glimpse of Ramesseum without going in, Valley of the Queens, Colossi of Memnon. 

We didn’t notice anything going on, but a week or two earlier, several small opposition groups had called for a day of protest on Jan. 25, Police Day, a national holiday commemorating the massacre of Egyptian auxiliary police in the Suez Canal Zone in 1952 by the British army, then still occupying the Suez Canal Zone (since conquest in 1882).   Organized on Facebook and Twitter by the youthful net-savvy, the protests in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and other cities were huge, catching the regime, “experts,” and probably the organizers by surprise.

In the previous parliament, the small opposition groups plus the Muslim Brothers (Islamists with a large following, illegal but sometimes allowed to run as independents) had had some representation, 80 or more in all out of 400 and something.  But regime rigged last fall’s parliamentary election so heavy handedly that non-government MPs were all but squeezed out in favor of the government’s National Party.   The govt. was going all out to pave the way for either another Hosni Mubarak term (after nearly 30 years in power since 1981, when he took over on Sadat’s assassination), or for his son Gamal, an American University in Cairo business graduate in his 40s and being groomed for succession despite denials. 

Deep political grievances: longstanding grievances of rigged elections, political arrests, torture in jails, controlled press and media with only limited token dissent allowed.  Resentment of American aid and political alliance, which helped keep Mubarak in power, drew Egypt into political alliance cemented by large scale American aid from 1978 on, when Egypt’s treaty with Israel.   Egypt helping Israel bottle up Palestinians (now led by Islamist Hamas, ideological off-shoot of the Muslim Brothers of Egypt) with military-economic blockade of Gaza strip, a deeply unpopular policy with much of the Egyptian public but a necessity for the alliance with the US and the aid resulting from that.  Perennial resentment of course of US’s lopsided support for Israeli interests at the expense of the Palestinians and others.

Economic-social grievances.   Large, long-term unemployment and underemployment, chronic poverty, disease, illiteracy still around 30% (higher for women), university graduates unemployed, professors and teachers and other govt employees can’t live a decent middle class life on their low wages and so work 2 or 3 jobs, teachers give private lessons to students, undercutting teachers’ time and energy for their public school jobs, hard for students to succeed in passing exams that weed many out at several levels unless they’ve had intensive private tutoring.   Those are white collar grievances; imagine the grievances of the larger lower classes, urban and rural.

Revolutions seem to be made by an unpredictable mixture of hope and despair and the conjuncture of seemingly unrelated events.   The fall of Tunisian dictator president Ben Ali earlier in January inspired the Egyptians, who have been feeling in danger of slipping from their position of leader of the Arab world.   Upstaged by little Tunisia, but also inspired by it.   Now Egypt is back as the natural leader, largest country, cultural leader, etc. of the Arab world. 

Day 2, Wednesday, Jan.26.    We move from boat Radamis II at Luxor to Sonesta St. George Hotel, Luxor—the ultimate in luxury and such high tech fixtures in the bathroom (a toilet-bidet with 10 or so usage directions printed on the (heated or not) toilet seat inner cover and a control panel with various functions.   Toilet labeled “Intelligent Toilet”—none of us doubt the toilet’s  intelligence, just the intelligence of the would be users.  Similarly complex control panel on the bath/shower/massage complex.

Our very knowledgeable tour director/guide predicts that yesterday’s demonstrations will largely peter out.   He couldn’t have been more wrong.   Me neither.   I tell the group that we historians have our hands full trying to explain the past, hoping that will let me off the hook for failing to predict what comes next.  

The day’s agenda is on the east bank, town of Luxor side, temple of Karnak.  We don’t encounter evidence of demonstrations in Luxor but are glued to the national news on TV. 

On this day in 1952, January 25, rioters reacting to the massacre of Egyptian police by Brits looted many Cairo hotels, theaters, nightclubs, department stores, killing a handful of foreigners and a number of Egyptians.   My family was in Egypt, living up country that year in Assiut, north of Luxor, where my mother was a housemother for the American Schutz boarding school.   We lived with in the boarding school; I was in 6th grade.   My father, a biologist (more precisely a poultry parasitologist) was in Cairo on a Fulbright fellowship, traveling up to visit us in Assiut by train every other weekend.   The next year he transferred to work for a US AID program, then called Point Four.   On Jan 26, 1952, because of the riots, he had a hard time getting home to where he was living in Heliopolis.  The next day he took a picture of the burned out ruin of the famed Shepheards Hotel.  I still have the slide, which has a shop front of the burned TWA office in the hotel’s sidewalk arcade.   Six months later came Nasser’s revolution, which was really a junior officer’s coup d’etat at that point rather than a popular uprising like today’s. 

Day 3, Th Jan 27.   We fly from Luxor to Cairo, take bus from Cairo airport on long desert road trip to Alexandria, where we put up at the Helnan Palestine, luxury hotel inside the palace grounds at Montaza Palace, ten miles along the coast from the center of old Alexandria.  Palace of playboy king Farouk and his predecessors, one of the two Alexandria palaces where he fidgeted away his last 3 days as king in July 23-26, 1952, after the army coup by Nasser, Sadat and other Free Officers.  Was allowed to sail away on the royal yacht to European exile, the casinos of Monte Carlo etc.   

Mohamed El Baradei, former head of the UN-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel peace prize winner, flies back to Egypt to resume the campaign he had begun the previous year to oppose Hosni Mubarak for the presidency.  He hadn’t seemed to gain much traction at the time because of heavy regime suppression. 

We arrive in Alex early enough to tour the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2002 revival of spirit of the ancient Greek library of Alexandria;  high tech, Unesco assistance, ultra-modern and electronically plugged-in showpiece of which the Egyptians are proud—with good reason.

Until the 1950s/ early 1960s, Alex was the standard point of entry for arriving tourists, coming by sea, and the first chapter in all the guidebooks.  Arriving Western travelers all found the modern city and its antiquities a bit of a disappointment, comparing it unfavorably either to the pharaonic antiquities inland or to fantasies of the classical Alexandria of Cleopatra, Julius, Caesar, Marc Antony, the Library, etc.   Since the 1960s, air travel by-passes Alex for Cairo, which is now the first chapter in all guidebooks.  Alex is seen only by a minority of tourists.  Those who do go, often either take it as a day trip from Cairo or as part of a Mediterranean cruise, in the latter case often making Cairo a day trip. 

Day 4 Friday, Jan. 28, 2011.  Nervousness by our tour-director guide and armed guard riding shotgun in the front of our bus (standard procedure throughout our trip, practiced since the attacks on tourists back in the 1990s), wanting to be sure to wind up our sightseeing before the noon prayers get out, the usual time for demonstrations if there are going to be any.   Opposition has called for massive protests and the govt. is scared;  internet (including Facebook and Twitter and e-mail) is shut down, so are mobile phones and some land lines. 

We tour the Greco-Roman era catacombs, Roman theater, and a drive out to the point on the eastern harbor where the ancient Ptolemaic lighthouse, one of the 7 ancient world wonders along with the Pyramids, once stood.  Now its place is occupied by a Disney-looking 15th century fort built by Qaitbay, Mamluk sultan, to ward off attacks by sea from the rising Europeans (Portuguese or others) or the rising Ottoman Empire.   We only stop for a photo op outside the fort because noon was now approaching and our guide and security guard and driver were getting nervous.   Back to the hotel by 1 PM, seeing some small groups of protestors outside a mosque, several draped in Egyptian flag, waiting for the service to get over so the protests could begin.

I had proposed to our guide a couple of options for those wanting to go out to other places in the afternoon, but the protests were clearly going to be big, so we remained inside the garden perimeter wall (300 acres?) of  the palace and our hotel for the afternoon.   We had lunch at the hotel instead of as originally planned at a fish restaurant in central Alex.  I called a discussion for 5 PM in the hotel and went up to my room to prepare for it, working on that instead of turning on the TV news, and at 4 o’clock I got a call from a member of the group who was worried, with good reason, as to whether the Jordan extension should go ahead for those who had chosen that itinerary after our Egyptian tour.  I turned on the TV and the demos were exceeding all expectations.  So I just watched until time for our discussion instead of going out for a (safe) walk in the palace gardens outside our hotel as I had intended.

TV and mobile phone networks.  Flashback: during our earlier cruise on Lake Nasser, there were  no inhabitants along the shore most places,  and only half a dozen cruise ships on the whole lake.   We were cut off from TV, and satellite-dependent mobile phones didn’t work for large stretches.   Once we got to Aswan we were back in touch with TV range but the rooms didn’t have TV sets on our Aswan-Lux boat; some of our crowd (not me) had mobile phones that worked for voice and texting and e-mail.   We got back in regular touch with the on-going stream of news when we got to the hotel on our second night in Luxor (Day 2 of the uprising), with TVs in our rooms there, in Alex, and on our last night in Cairo.   CNN was doing almost non-stop Egyptian coverage for a while, BBC, Euronews—all in English.   In Arabic I watched al-Jazira, al-Arabiyya (London-based Saudi outfit not subject to Egyptian censorship), and the Egyptian channels which mostly ran the same heavily censored coverage after ignoring the demonstrations on the first day.  CNN reflected US biases but valuable for extensive live coverage. 

Amazing to me that though Egyptians are deeply disappointed at Obama administration’s failure (unwillingness? Inability?) to deliver on hopes aroused last year by his Cairo University speech,  demonstrators concentrated on protesting internal conditions and not attacking foreigners verbally or otherwise.  But during this day the police were overwhelmed by the demos, and were withdrawn for several days—no traffic cops, tourist police, or other security forces in sight.   Beating up demonstrators with clubs is long-standing way of dealing with protests by undercover policemen/thugs, and there was a lot of that.   Throwing rocks at police in some cases, but mostly peaceful protesting.   Then burning down the National Party headquarters in Cairo, next to the old Nile Hilton and next to the Egyptain Museum.   Then burning down police stations in Cairo, Alex, and elsewhere.  Then looting began, prisons broken open and the prisoners freed, a mix of criminals and political prisoners.   Widespread belief that police themselves as plainclothesmen were looting and rioting, a regime ploy to make the public support a regime crack down to prevent anarchy.  Army sent in with tanks in the main squares and streets, people welcoming them instead of the hated police.   Kissing and shaking hands with the soldiers, snapping photos of demonstrators in front of tanks etc.  

That afternoon and evening from our hotel, I thought maybe I heard shouting a few times and went out on the balcony but wasn’t sure.   We had our current events discussion.   In all of these, our tour director was great in supplying his views, with me occasionally bringing in historical perspectives.   He reported how several of our security guards on the buses etc. had made remarks favoring the demonstrators and hoping they would teach the government (which employed them) a lesson.

I was still watching the news just after midnight when Mubarak came on live for his speech, made under American pressure, in which he appointed a vice president, Omar Suleiman, military general who had been running the intelligence apparatus for many years.   Previously Mubarak had avoided having a VP to keep his options open on family succession for Gamal.  Cabinet resignation also announced, new one to be headed by former air force general (Mubarak himself came out of the air force) who had headed Egypt Air.   Thus a statement of Mubarak staying on, with trusted security military guys running the show. 

Day 5 Sat. Jan 29.   The day scheduled for our return to Cairo from Alex for an overnight in Cairo (Heliopolis, near the airport).   Our tour director/guide had thoughtfully arranged for us to return to Cairo by train (thus avoiding retracing our bus route back from Alex), but since that would involve boarding at the Alex station of Sidi Gabr (suburb) and arriving in the central Cairo train station, he wisely decided to take us back on our charter bus on the desert route.   Up for early breakfast while he went out to find a police escort to take us back.   Outside the main palace gate, there was a police station which had been burned down overnight.  He found out from the hotel staff that the police were hiding at a secret location nearby, which he reached.  He asked for a police escort for us, and they sent one, but the guard then got a call to return to headquarters.   Just as well, for our tour director had decided that since police were now targets, we’d be better off without a guard.  Excellent call. 

Uneventful 4-hour-plus drive Alex-to-our-Cairo-(Heliopolis) hotel near the Cairo airport.   We went straight through without the usual rest stop break at a half-way house (toilet on the bus for emergencies).  A little way out of Alexandria, mobile phone service came back on (internet remained out; just this morning, Wed. Feb 2, I heard it is finally restored).  Our driver and tour director were busy on their phones checking with their families and consulting on the best route to take through Cairo.   (Driver had brought along his son, aged 10 or 11, apparently for the ride, and the son sat in the seat where the guard ordinarily rode shotgun).  Driver happened to be a Coptic Christian.   Notable that this was largely a secular organized uprising, with the outlawed Muslim Brothers slow to come in, and the Coptic Pope Shenouda III at first advising his flock to keep out of it, but on the 2nd day telling his flock to follow their consciences (and many of them apparently joined in the demonstrations).   Muslim Brothers are Islamist by the way, but their surviving leaders have long since turned their back on violence as the way they hope to come to power.   Violence comes from radical off shoots, such as those who assassinated Sadat, or Ayman al-Zawahiri, no. 2 man in al Qaeda presumably hiding out in Pakistan mountains.   Mainstream Muslim Brotherhood popularity, like that of Hamas in Palestine/Israel, and of Hizbullah in Lebanon, comes from social welfare and educational work among the poor which the government is unable or unwilling to serve with any adequacy.   Writing them off as terrorists, the tendency of CNN and much US mainstream coverage really misses the boat.     

One of our group sent a text message for me to the Univ of Wash alumni office that we were fine and on our way by bus to Cairo.  The ring road was apparently partially blocked by the army, but the central square in Cairo (Midan al Tahrir, Liberation Square) was temporarily fairly clear.   It being Saturday, no big post-noon-prayer demonstration was anticipated, so the driver took us thru the center.  

Malls and luxury shops were looted.  

It was so smoggy we couldn’t see the Pyramids, and we went through the center of Cairo on the October 6 bridge, behind the Egyptian Museum, the other side of which fronts on Liberation Square.   When the demonstrators were initially blocked out of Liberation Square, they grouped behind it in Abdel Moneim Riyad (army general with a statue) square behind the Egyptian Museum.  As we got near the center, I saw a cloud of smoke rising, and it turned out to be the National Party Headquarters still smoldering.   We took pictures of that and of the tanks and  armored personnel carriers in several squares with soldiers and only small groups of welcoming people around them; it was around noon.  Several hours later those squares were again crowded with massive demonstrations. 

As we got near the Heliopolis hotel, Le Meridien, our tour director said the tanks there were not from the army but the National Guard.   He didn’t say so, but this was near the main presidential palace where Mubarak lives.   There had been rumors and reports for several days that Mubarak’s wife Suzanne and sons and their families had fled to London.   And a day or two earlier, our tour director’s wife (also a guide) had flown out with a group of Egyptians who were going on a European tour; she reported the Cairo airport crowded with rich Egyptians eager to get out (and, no doubt, stranded Western tourists too).

At the hotel, our rooms were not yet ready, but the staff were hurrying to get us up to our rooms so as to get us off the ground floor in case of any trouble.  I got to my room around 3:30.  That evening the lights were off on the ground floor so as not to attract outside attention, and the lobby was deserted except for a couple of staff.   We went ahead with our group’s planned farewell dinner on the ground floor in the dark, considerably darker than a candlelight dinner.  I went back up the stairs to my room for a flashlight so I could read my farewell remarks.   For a time the elevators were turned off so that we couldn’t take them down to the lobby; we went down the stairwells instead.   Uneventful and convivial farewell dinner, both the group scheduled to fly back to the US and the group scheduled to go on to Jordan saying good bye.  Both groups hoping to fly out the next morning but we knew that the Cairo airport was chaotic. 

That evening I called three professor friends resident in Egypt, two Americans and one Egyptian.  The latter, a retired professor, Muslim, was apprehensive about the protests, fearing instability and threats to the somewhat precarious middle class lifestyle which he has by hard work managed to provide for his family.  A few years ago, his career was almost wrecked by Islamists in his department who attacked him for something he had published; the current (or is it now former?) regime, though it has already conceded more ground to Islamists than secularists like, offered some guarantee of protection against a recurrence of that nature.

One of the American profs I called was not in, so I spoke with his wife.   He was out with neighbors protecting the entrance to their block with a baseball bat; such vigilante groups were formed all over the country when the police disappeared and the looting began.   Another American prof, retired, reported on his perceptions.   No thought of evacuation, at least at that time, on the part of the two Americans.  The American Research Center in Egypt, ARCE, however, has since contacted all its fellows and affiliated expeditions and offered to facilitate their departures if they want to leave.  The American director is planning on leaving on Friday. 

Sunday, Jan. 30.   I turned off the TV a little before midnight.  Awakened about 4:15 AM by clanging metal sounds, distant shouts, and gunshots.   Decided it would be better to be dressed if there was trouble.   Did so and turned on TV which was unhelpfully endlessly rerunning on CNN and other channels old footage from the day before.   Out my window I could see only a small section of the street in front of our hotel, a few guards and hotel personnel at the iron fence perimeter.   But the shouting and clanging (perhaps an iron bar or hammer on the metal light posts?) and gunshots and shouts soon died away. 

Down for breakfast a little after six, on the still darkened ground floor, fairly simple options after the lavish buffets at all meals that had been offered in the hotels and on the boats.   The Jordan group had been scheduled to go to the airport an hour ahead of those of us who were returning home, but they were delayed, and we all waited together for the lifting of the curfew at 8 o’clock.  Demonstrators, of course, had massively defied the curfews.   Left shortly after 8, went through several checkpoints on the 2-3 miles to the airport, and when the drivers of the 2 vans we were in saw the jammed traffic for the departure-level drop off, they drove in the arrivals level and dropped us off.   Everyone arriving the previous afternoon and evening at the airport had been forced to spend the night, mostly on the floor.   Egyptians who had arrived the night before were now outside,trying to get taxis but hardly any to be found.  

We got out, went into the arrivals hall with our suitcases, and tried to make our way with the  crowd up to the departure level.   The first escalator which a majority of our group went up was jammed, and the escalator kept stopping.   So some others and I walked down a ways to another escalator and got up.  It turned out the people on the first escalator were being forced up into a jam-packed hall with the escalator still running and forcing them off with their suitcases and no place to go at the top.  Somebody finally stopped the escalator, and they squeezed onto the upper floor.   No Odysseys agents in sight.

It took perhaps half an hour to work our ways individually up to the bottleneck—machines for the preliminary screening of our luggage.  An inch at a time, a wedge rather than a queue.   One of our couples got separated from each other, the wife having both their tickets and the husband being maybe 75 feet away and unable to reach her and without a ticket to get himself through (after she got through, she found an Odysseys agent who went back with her and picked up her husband).   

A great relief to find the wonderful Odysseys agents as we emerged from the initial luggage screening, and they directed us to two separate check-in counters, one for JFK and one for Amman.   That day Delta suspended all their Cairo flights indefinitely; we were lucky to be scheduled on Egypt Air, though some of their flights had been cancelled, and all were delayed.  The departures information on the board and by rumor kept changing, our flight disappearing etc.   It took about two hours standing in line just for our NY flight for the 2-3 people working the counter to check us in.  I haven’t heard a report yet on the Amman group.   It turned out that the people working the counters were mostly management, having spent the night at the airport and with most of the regular ticket agents unable to get to work.   Maybe it’s universal that management doesn’t know the ropes half as well as their subordinates who work the trenches on a daily basis.

I later heard that one woman in our party got to the gate to board the plane and was turned back by the agent who said her passport hadn’t been stamped for exiting.   He took her passport and put it in his pocket.   She waited a few minutes, then insisted he give it back.  He told her she had to go all the way back to the emigration desk; she did that and the guy told her she had to fill out the separate emigration form (which she had already filled out and they had taken when she went through the first time).   I’m not sure, but I think the official’s stamp had been out of ink the first time and so didn’t show up on her passport.   After going all the way back, she was told, she would have to fill out another emigration form.   OK, please give me one.   Sorry, we don’t have any--you have to go further back to pick one up.  Her husband was with her, but her sister and daughter were already on the plane and couldn’t get off to find out what the trouble was.  Thoroughly frightening, but she made it!   Lots and lots of people didn’t get out that day and haven’t since.   The Americans are well behind the Brits in organizing charter flights to take citizens out who want to go (at their own expense, at least for Americans!—hurrah for free enterprise). 

Once checked in, we made our ways individually out toward the gate where our flight was supposed to take off four hours late.   Sitting on the floor of the airport while waiting , wandering around to see what was up.  People sitting on the floor, sleeping on the floor, overflowing trash bins, concessions mostly out of regular food though one pizza place with a long line was still dishing it out.  Business class lounge reported by some of our group to be similarly overwhelmed, crowded, out of food, and unpleasant.   Our flight disappeared from the TV screens for a while but we seemed to be at the right gate, eventually boarded, sat for maybe an hour, and took off 4 hours late.   Alhamdulillah! 

We were extremely lucky.   The woman I sat next to on the plane was from Dominique in the Caribbean, had been with an Odysseys group of Smith alumni who had just arrived on Thursday!  All they got was a Friday morning tour of  the Pyramids, and then were sequestered in the Semiramis Intercontinental (where we too had stayed on our way in), a block or so off of Liberation Square and on the Nile.  Elevators would not run below the 4th floor, lights were out down below to prevent attracting unwanted attention.   On CNN I saw video of the demonstrators on the Qasr al-Nil bridge shot by a couple of first-time American tourists, and from the angle it clearly had to be from this hotel.   Odysseys is going to give my seat-mate’s group a full refund.  

Another Odysseys group flying out on our plane had come early enough to see Cairo and take a dahabiya ride (fancier than the regular steamers, nostalgia for the old sailboat luxury sailing of yore) for the Aswan-Luxor stretch but had then had to cut short and had spent the night on the floor in the Cairo airport.

Arriving into JFK about 4 hours late, 8 PM Sunday night, having missed all our connecting flights.  Miracle of miracles: we were met by Odysseys agents who had rebooked our flights, put us at the airport  Sheraton, arranged shuttle transport to and from, and had had dinner waiting for us when we got to the hotel about 10 PM!  

Day 7, Mon  Jan 31.  I woke up wide awake in the NY airport Sheraton about 3:30 AM, two hours earlier than necessary, watched some CNN boring news reruns, packed, and joined those who were still together for our early morning flights.  Herb, Karen, and I landed in Seattle around 11 AM.   My wife (Barbara/Barbie) welcomed me at the airport and whisked me away to shower, lunch, and decompression and the rest of the family!

Day 8 Tuesday, Feb. 1 is kind of a blur of thrill at seeing my family and of babysitting, catching up on e-mail, following the news on Egypt.

Day 9 Wednesday, Feb. 2.    I wrote much of the above between 2 and 5 AM, sleeping pills notwithstanding.  Lay back down for an hour at five but was too revved up and so got up, Wednesday morning.   I’m meeting  Farhat Ziadeh and Nick Heer (retired Near East Languages and Civ Dept colleagues—Farhat is my 93-year-old Arabic professor from graduate school who then came out to Seattle to found the department) for lunch.  Then stopping by the alumni office for coffee with Pauline Ranieri, who said yesterday that the other UW alumni Odyssey group (one week behind ours) had been bused from Luxor to Aswan, flew out to Amman yesterday, would get to see Petra, and are scheduled to arrive back in the US tomorrow, Thursday, inshallah.

Yesterday, Mubarak, under massive US and other pressure, conceded that he would not run for reelection.  But he still hopes to hang on until September.  The news this morning says regime thugs and special forces on camels (! Are they bent on confirming Orientalist stereotypes?) and horses have attacked the protestors occupying Midan al-Tahrir with brutality while the army  stood by.   The army had declared it would not fire on the demonstrators, but it wouldn’t act to protect them either.   Ostensibly a pro-Mubarak demonstration but with preprinted placards etc.   It’s still up in the air, but it seems unlikely Mubarak can last much longer.   El Baradei and a loose temporary coalition behind him have given him until Friday to resign. 

All of this is the reflection of a privileged foreigner who came out with some minor inconvenience and a great deal of luck, and thanks to the wonderful dedication of Odysseys staff in the US and the courage and dedication of its Egyptian staff.   We love you!   Speaking for myself, mostly I’m apprehensive but hopeful for my Egyptian friends, foreign friends resident in Egypt, and for all Egyptians.   All Egyptians want a better material life for themselves and their families, more opportunities, and more justice.   Most want it through more democratic freedoms, and I hope that my country can pursue such goals for the region with far more wisdom than it often has in the Middle East in the past.            

Don/Donald (Reid)       

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