By Lauren Frayer
Foreigners are jamming Cairo’s airport today while the U.S. and other governments scramble to evacuate their citizens from Egypt as riots, looting and lawlessness spread across a nation struggling to overthrow nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule – and still uncertain of what’s to come.
President Hosni Mubarak swore in a new Cabinet today, but the move was unlikely to quell protests calling for the ouster of the president himself. Upon word of the new Cabinet, thousands in downtown Cairo began chanting, “We want the fall of the regime,” The Associated Press reported.
While many foreigners expressed solidarity with those pushing for democratic reform in Egypt, many also said they preferred not to stay behind to experience any political change firsthand.
“We love it here, and it was a very hard decision to leave,” Patty Axelsen, an American who lives in Cairo’s upscale Maadi area, told The New York Times as she prepared to fly out of the country. With looting and small fires burning in her street, she said, her beloved neighborhood no longer looks familiar.
“I have been calm and reasonable about everything, but uncertain of what is going to happen long term,” one of her neighbors, Randi Danforth, told the Times. “There have been no demonstrations in Maadi, but what people are concerned about are opportunists and thugs. There are rumors going around of home invasions and looting. In fact, we have seen little of that ourselves.”
The U.S. Embassy in Egypt said it is evacuating Americans to “safe-haven locations in Europe.” A U.S. government plane left Cairo today with embassy officials and their dependents onboard and has landed in Cyprus, AP reported.
A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Cairo told the Times that two other flights with about 177 passengers each also departed from Cairo and that about six more flights were scheduled to depart later today.
U.S. citizens will have to reimburse the government for the cost of the evacuation flights, the embassy said.
Several other countries, including even Iraq, have sent special flights to do the same. Dozens more have posted travel warnings against tourism to Egypt right now.
An estimated 90,000 Americans live and work in Egypt, and thousands more travel there on vacation each year, the Times said.
Among those fleeing are 46 members of the school band at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., who have been on a musical tour of Egypt. The group managed to catch a flight out of Cairo on Sunday and stayed the night in Amsterdam before flying back to the U.S. today, the college said on its website.
David Lewis, a Briton who had been visiting his schoolteacher niece in Egypt, told the BBC why he cut his vacation short.
“It did not take us long to realize it was not safe to be out on the streets,” Lewis said. “We were lying in bed at night hearing shots, looking out of the window seeing groups of men with sticks in their hands trying to protect their homes.”
Mubarak’s regime cut off most Internet and phone service on Friday to try to prevent protesters from using Facebook and other social media to organize demonstrations. The outages also created obstacles for foreign media trying transmit news and for relatives abroad trying to verify their loved ones’ safety.
The government took further steps against Al-Jazeera, trying to shut down the Qatar-based TV network’s Cairo offices and arresting six journalists working for its English-language branch. Al-Jazeera has one of the largest contingents of journalists reporting from Cairo’s streets, and Egyptian officials have sought to restrict the free flow of information, accusing the network of stirring up protests.
The American University in Cairo’s website was online but very slow today, and contact numbers appeared to be scrambled. A woman who answered the phone at the college’s media office, identifying herself only as Reem, said, “No one is going to university anywhere in Egypt today.” She refused to give details, but told AOL News that all educational institutions were closed indefinitely. But an emergency announcement posted on the site said that “residents are secure and faculty, staff and students are safe.”
With Internet connectivity sporadic at best and most mobile-phone service cut off, the U.S. Embassy hasn’t been able to send out text-message alerts to Americans who signed up for the service. Instead, diplomats are relying on word-of-mouth to try to get evacuation information to people.
“It was decided overnight that there will be a million-man march on Tuesday,” one of the protest organizers, Eid Mohammed, told Agence France-Presse today. “We have also decided to begin an open-ended general strike.”
Egyptian workers have long held similar strikes, albeit on a smaller scale, to protest their low wages or occasional increases in the prices of government-subsidized bread or fuel. But previous strikes have lasted only a few days, and the danger is that if they last longer, many poor Egyptians could go hungry. Grocery stories across the capital have been looted in recent days, and few new deliveries have come in.
Today’s strike was first called by workers in the canal city of Suez overnight, AFP reported.