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Tucsonans caught up in Egyptian unrest return home safely

Smoke from a burning government building fills the sky above the Eyptian Museum in Cairo, Jan. 29. The photograph was taken from a tour bus window. (Joan Elder)

When Tucsonan Joan Elder signed up for a 10-day late-January trip to Egypt to celebrate her 70th birthday, she had no idea that her adventure would be interrupted by massive anti-government demonstrations. Apparently, the Egyptian people were just as stunned by the uprising.

“No one expected anything like this to happen,” Elder told the AJP after arriving home on Feb. 3 at 2:30 a.m.  “Our guide was more opinionated than any guide I’ve heard before, telling us how corrupt the government was, and how much the people wanted [President Hosni] Mubarak out,” said the retired Los Angeles middle school teacher.  Elder went on the SmarTour trip with fellow Saddlebrooke resident Esta Goldstein, 72, and another friend from Florida.

Mubarak has reigned in Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. The current anti-government protests around the country began Jan. 25 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with young people alerting each other on Facebook, says Elder. “That’s why the Internet was turned off” by the Mubarak government.

The tour group of 45 Americans and Canadians had completed a five-day cruise of the Nile River when the protests began. “It will be a one-day demonstration. Don’t worry about it,” Ezzat, their 50-year-old guide told them, says Elder, adding that “as the demonstrations were getting more heated but not violent” on Jan. 28, the group flew from Aswan to Cairo. Twenty minutes after they arrived at the Cairo International Airport, their guide said they wouldn’t be able to leave. The group was stuck at the airport for 10 hours.

But the guide’s efforts secured a booking in a hotel a half-hour ride from Tahrir Square, she says, instead of heading for the originally scheduled Cairo Marriott Hotel, which was much closer to the demonstrations.

Meanwhile, about six members of the tour flew home from the Cairo airport that night for a $75 ticket change fee, notes Elder, adding that only two hours later more members of their group wanted to fly home, but the ticket-change fee had already increased to $750 per person.

The next day, “sitting around the pool at the hotel playing cards was surreal,” says Elder. Around 1:30 p.m. Ezzat announced that they would be switching to the Marriott, which was situated on a small island where they would be safe.

Riding on what “we could call a freeway we saw army [personnel] with guns, demonstrators and police stations that had been burned,” says Elder.  As their tour bus approached Cairo’s renowned Egyptian  Museum, their guide told them to close the curtains, noting that it wasn’t a good idea for demonstrators to see tourists coming through.

Hotel security guards surrounded the Marriott, says Elder, who admitted that she was “curious to see what was going on.” Luckily, her seventh-floor hotel room had a balcony overlooking the Nile, and was two blocks from the Egyptian Museum and the burned government building.

“We were really oblivious,” says Elder, “but we could hear shots.” The group held a meeting with Ezzat that evening. Some people wanted to hire a taxi to visit the pyramids, which they did early Sunday morning. “We didn’t need to see the Pyramids that badly to take a risk like that,” she says of herself and her friends.

Around 2 p.m. on Sunday Jan. 30, the first fighter jet flew over the Marriott. “That’s when it became very real to me,” says Elder. “They might have dropped a bomb on us. I said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ We were watching CNN, Al Jazeera English and the BBC and found out that the planes were trying to disperse the crowds.”

“I was amazed at the courage of the people, to see them come out each day and put their lives on the line,” says Goldstein, a Tucson realtor and former elementary school teacher. “As Americans we have lost so much of the spirit of being American. Here people complain about our government but we don’t know how fortunate we are.”

The group was scheduled to fly out of Cairo for the United States on Monday morning, Jan. 31. They left the Mariott at 7 a.m., an hour before the curfew would be lifted. “We were stopped by the military many times but when they saw a busload of American and Canadian tourists they let us through, no problem,” explains Elder, adding that “it wasn’t really clear who was giving orders to whom.” After waiting in a “very understaffed” airport for two hours, they began the 12-hour flight from Cairo to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Back home in Tucson, reflects Elder, “It’s the [Egyptian] police causing all this. They’re so corrupt. They’re letting thugs out of jail to cause trouble,” alluding to the violent turn that protests took on Jan. 31. “There’s a strong army presence but they’re not militaristic,” she notes.

While in Egypt, “we talked about Mubarak’s plan to bring back the police to attack the demonstrators so they would succumb,” says Goldstein, adding, “I never felt unsafe.  I never experienced any anti-Semitism in Egypt, even with my name Goldstein. I had to show my passport repeatedly. People were extremely friendly.”

The two Saddlebrooke residents couldn’t help contemplating the historical significance of the massive protests. “Why does the U.S. support dictators? It’s all politics,” opined Goldstein.

“My personal feeling is that the [protests] will not end unless [Mubarak] resigns, leaves the country or is assassinated,” says Elder.  “He has already said he won’t run again, his term is up in September, his son has already left the country, and because of what happened in Tunisia, protesters have achieved some success. They’re hungry for more.”

Elder worries about the future of the region: “We don’t know what this means to Israel. Mubarak was a tyrant to his people but he followed the peace agreements and had good relations with Israel.” But for now, she says, “with everything closed the people will run out of food soon. I’m concerned for the average people, the children. What’s going to happen to them?”