Friday, July 5, 2013

Countdown to Evacuation

In general, I try to weave in details about my personal experiences in Cairo along with a larger account of the events in Cairo. However, I feel that my impending evacuation needs to be dealt with as a separate issue since it says more about the internal workings of the U.S. State Department and insurance companies than it does about actual events in Cairo. At this time, I firmly maintain that this evacuation is unnecessary. In spite of this, I do understand concerns of our friends and families back home. I hope that our departures help to ease their concerns.

On Wednesday night, July 3rd, the military deposed then president Mohammad Morsi with the support of  the overwhelming majority of Egyptian society.  At 11:29PM, a mere two hours after the speech by Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the US Department of State sent out a message entitled "Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens: Travel Warning for Egypt." It stated that "the U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer travel to Egypt and U.S. citizens living in Egypt to depart at this time because of the continuing political and social unrest." This message seemed like a sign of troubles to come for the future of my Arabic studies and rather rushed since the government had just fallen. All evidence was that things at that exact moment remained largely peaceful considering a coup was underway.

As a rule, I am skeptical about information coming from the US Department of State about events abroad.  While other foreign embassies have issued travel warnings, many, including the British and French Embassies, are not currently requering the departure of their nationals. Why is the United State's assessment of the situation so dire? It points to the fact that these announcements are political, expressing dissatisfaction with a foreign country's leadership rather than focusing on the safety of American citizens. This announcement seemed to be perfectly timed to highlight the United State's governments disapproval about the toppling of Morsi by the Egyptian military.

At 1:15 AM an email arrived from the CASA program stating that the "International Office at the University of Texas has asked that we evacuate all of the CASA Fellows, at least temporarily." It went on to state that it was the hope of the program that after a short period we would return to Egypt. At the time, I was finishing up my reactions to the actual coup (The tanks rolled in... And Egypt celebrate). Blurry eyed and exhausted after a long, emotional day, I sent an email off to my family about this unwelcome development.

In spite of our eminent departure, I still had classes which is a rather odd experience. A day of spirited debate ended with emotional good-byes with the staff and teachers. We still do not know if we will be coming back to Egypt. Therefore, it remains unclear whether this is just a break to evaluate the situation or this is the end of the program. A few students were already gone. In fact, one student was spirited away by some kind of extraction team on Wednesday night to everyone's great surprise. We have not heard anything about her since.

At this point, we also had no details about our evacuation except that we would be leaving on Friday and contacted by the insurance company sometime that afternoon. After class, I returned to my apartment, frustrated and unhappy about these developments. I emailed a number of Egyptian friends, who showed genuine dismay at the fact that we were leaving. Honestly, they did not seem to understand the thinking behind this decision. They were still celebrating the downfall of a hated government and the situation seemed better to them now - not worse. I agreed with them that Cairo felt safe at this point. I think that I have pretty good instincts about these kinds of situations and Egyptians are not shy about their feelings. Cairo is not a city on the verge of exploding in spite of what the western news might be reporting.

By late in the afternoon, I was committed to staying in Egypt. I had no intention of placing myself in danger but the situation did not seem that bleak. The insurance company was giving us another 5 days to evacuate. Even after that, I still had the option of buying a ticket home. As a student of history, I was watching it unfold in front of my eyes. It is not very often that you get opportunities like these.

Evidence that I will be returning. My dresser as I left
Besides from the obvious fact that the atmosphere is Cairo does not seem dangerous, I am intellectually against decision. It sends the message to our Egyptian friends that we are abandoning them. They have just gotten rid of an extremely unpopular president. At this pivotal moment of victory, we bolt at the first indication that things might get the slightest bit uncomfortable. Observing from the sidelines, we are merely tourists to their political transformation with no commitment to the actual process or its outcome.

As the afternoon wore on, it became increasingly clear how much both my family and the program disapproved of my decision to stay. With all US programs being evacuated, including the fellows from Fulbright and Boren, the pressure mounted. After a series of tense emails and conversations, I agreed to be evacuated and emailed the insurance company to make arrangements. It still seems unnecessary but it made everyone around me more comfortable.  My roommate is staying and I support her decision.

We originally believed that we would all be evacuated to the same location, probably a centrally located European city with a large airport. We were all praying: Not Frankfurt. We could then spend the next 6 days waiting to find out if we could return to Egypt or were being sent home. The insurance company, FrontierMEDEX, surprised us and gave all of us a choice as to where they wanted to be evacuated for the safe haven period. This might have been partially strategic since flights are filling up fast. While this was an appreciated development, it did result in some people treating an evacuation more like a free vacation. My colleagues are going to Madrid, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Athens, Tel Aviv and Paris to name a few cities.

For my own part, I choose to request Tunis so I could visit a close friend working there. To my pleasant surprise, they agreed almost immediately. It would allow me to remain in the Arab world and give me a nearby location to watch events unfold. I might get to see the organizing of a Tamarod campaign in Tunis. I could even get evacuated from another country in the region (Just kidding Mom!). Getting to visit a friend during this tense period takes a bit of the sting out of being evacuated.

In the end, I am lucky. During political conflicts, plenty of people do not have the luxury of an evacuation to a location of their choice, facilitated by an insurance company. The Middle East  is plagued by the problem of refugees, who remain in legal limbo. In contrast, I can move freely across borders with hardly a question due to the fact that I carry an American passport. Most Egyptians have never even traveled outside of their country. Not because they would not like to but due to the fact that such experiences is not open to them. In the era of nation-states, freedom of movement is a right guaranteed to the privileged few.

It has been an emotional few days.  The future of my writing on the Egypt revolution remains in question. Hopefully, I will return after this safe haven period to continue my studies and blogging. I will update this blog as long as it is possible about current events. For on the ground analysis, please see the blog of my roommate, Alexia Underwood:

The Revolution continues without me...