Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Road to Tunis

This is the second part of a two part story on my evacuation from Cairo. To read the first part, check out my archive (Countdown to Evacuation).

Right now, I am sitting drinking a foamy latte at an expensive airport coffee shop while I wait for my flight. The news of events in downtown Cairo is being broadcasted on a flat-screen TV behind me and a large number of people have gathered to watch, commenting loudly to each other. Images of clashes between Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition are flashing across the screen, as an indistinguishable mass lobs rock and fireworks at each other on the Sixth of October Bridge. The nights characterized by laser pointer shows and celebrations seem to have come to an abrupt end.

In an hour and a half, I will be on my way out of Egypt. I have already talked about the decisions, both personal and bureaucratic, that lead to my evacuation from Cairo today.

Whole experience of being evacuated due to political instability is one of those kinds of stories that makes a good brief annotated that could be shared at a cocktail party. "During the Egypt revolution in 2013, I was evacuated from Cairo to Tunisia right after the government was toppled." The actual details are somewhat less compelling. If you’re looking for a story of a mad dash to the airport under fire, I would suggest you stop reading now. That is the stuff of films. The actually experience is far more mundane unless you are my colleague that got extracted in the middle of the night. It is mostly just a lot of sitting around waiting.

At 8:30AM this morning, my program began sending around a bus to pick up students from their homes and take them to the AUC dorms in Zamalek to wait for evacuation. I woke at around 5AM this morning, immediately checking my email for any developments that happened over night. There were a few emails but nothing super pressing. Most of the morning was spent drinking coffee, finishing packing, reading the news and writing. This blog has sort of become a labor of love over the last several days which have included some long spans of time at home. The bus did not arrive until nearly 10:30 AM at which point I crammed myself in the back seat with 8 other students. We joked and shared travel plans as we circled around Dokki together, picking up three more students. 

Tanks in Midan al-Galaa
While the city was largely quiet, one thing was striking; the army was out in force. They moved in as they deposed Morsi but there deployment had increased significantly even from the previous day. This morning most of downtown looked like it was under military occupation. There were at least 6 tanks parked in an alley off Midan al-Galaa. The streets were being patrolled by armed personnel carriers and more were stopped periodically along the edge of the road. It was difficult to imagine anyone seeing Cairo filled with troops and not thinking the word: coup. I tried not to let this armed show of force unnerve me since I am by nature made uneasy by shows of military force.

We arrived at the Zamalek dorms at around 11:15AM and most of the students departed immediately for the airport, which resulted in another round of good-byes. Considering the uncertainty of the future, most people seemed to be in good spirits. I had several hours to wait before I left for the airport. In fact, I had received an interesting email the night before about my departure from the dorms:

Your vehicle, driver and EP agent details are below.  The security team will be in position at your dorm at 1700 local. The driver will then provide transportation to the airport to meet your local departure flight.

Sounds rather black ops - doesn't it? That is about as exciting as it gets.

Until 5PM, there was not much else to do but sit around. I read, made friends with the Zamalek dorm's cat, shared some Yemeni food with a colleague and watched the events happening in Egypt on a large TV in the lobby. Unfortunately, the news was not encouraging. The pro-Morsi forces that gathered after Friday prayer were much larger than expected- around 100,000 people. At least three people were killed by gunfire as a crowd of several hundred tried to march towards the military barracks in Cairo where Morsi is believed to be held.  

While waiting for my departure, I had the opportunity to speak briefly with the President of the American University in Cairo, Lisa Anderson, who reassured me that she thought the program would reopen after our 6 days in the safe haven. I hope she is right but I wonder if recent developments have changed her assessment.

At a little after 5PM, our bus arrived along with the security team who was actual a single guy. He was dressed in the required uniform of all security professionals - khaki pants and black polo shirt. We appeared to take a rather creative path to get to the airport that included a detour midway through the trip after a phone call arrived. It was a bit unclear what they were trying to avoid en route, possibly just an accident on the highway. We arrived at the airport without incident which is to be expected. The security guy left us at the door of the terminal.

Upon arriving, we learned that our flight was delayed an hour and a half, which is hardly unusual on Tunisian Air. I sat down at the café with my laptop and cup of coffee to write this post with the time that I had before the flight. At first, there seemed to be no new developments from Cairo since the afternoon. However, the news turned dark as the sun set. While a great deal of the information remained hazy, it appeared clear that pro- and anti- Morsi forces had clashed violently on Sixth of October Bridge and near Midan al-Tahrir. Both The police and military were largely absent. Those that witnessed it compared it to the Battle of the Camel, when anti-Mubarak demonstrators were attacked by paid thugs during the 2011 Revolution.

As I read the live reports and watched the images of TV, I was struck by how quickly conditions changed in Cairo. At the same time, no one seemed to have seen this intense of backlash coming. The attempts to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood by arresting their leadership and shutting down their major television station seemed to have only emboldened them. Clashes on Friday were always a possibility but I had hoped that they could be avoided. That proved to wishful thinking.

Interestingly enough, I saw a post on Facebook from my roommate about meeting our neighbors for dinner. It continues to be striking the way in which life continues to go on even when the possibility of violence looms. Even during clashes, much of the rest of the city can be rather safe since the violence is rather localized. I could have stayed on my tree-lined street and been almost oblivious to the conflicts happening in other parts of Cairo. A lot of me still wish that I was there. I hope this exile from Egypt is short lived.

The Revolution continues without me…