Egypt protests from afar: Americans wait nervously for loved ones' return

Egypt's street battles are especially worrisome to those Americans who have relatives living or traveling in Egypt. Even with skill and extra cash, a hurried exit from the country is problematic.

By , Staff writer

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    Tourists make their way to a terminal to attempt to leave Egypt, at Cairo airport, Egypt, on Feb. 2. The US began evacuating nonessential government personnel and their families Wednesday.

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Increasingly violent political demonstrations in Egypt are worrisome for television viewers all over the globe – but for none more so than those with relatives in the country. An estimated 50,000 Americans were in Egypt as the fire of activism spread from the streets of Tunisia to the central square of Cairo.

The US State Department, which Tuesday ordered the evacuation of all nonessential government personnel, has issued a travel warning to Americans considering travel to Egypt. It has also arranged evacuation flights. According to the State Department, roughly 1,800 Americans had been taken out by late Wednesday. The evacuation flights are depositing the Americans in such safe harbors as Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece.

The speed at which the outcry against President Hosni Mubarak’s government spread took even seasoned travelers by surprise, says Payal Amin, a Los Angeles doctor. Her parents, aunt, and uncle had just landed in Egypt to begin what was to have been a 10-day vacation on Jan. 27.

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“They barely had time to see the pyramids,” she says by phone while awaiting the group’s return on Thursday. The tour group was hustled away from the growing disturbances onto a Nile cruise, she says. But that was the end of any semblance of normalcy. They were shipped off to a hotel and by Saturday, were shuttered safely away from any tourist destinations.

“They tried to get on the evacuation flight on Monday,” she says, but “there were too many people trying to leave, so they couldn’t.”

Her relatives’ exit is being stage-managed from the offices of Friendly Planet Travel in Philadelphia, where Peggy Goldman, the company president and a 30-year travel veteran, has been updating families members of those on her tour from day one via her blog.

Against a background of chaos and canceled flights, not to mention airports clogged with trapped tourists with few routes home, her agency has been able to negotiate the return flights for her group largely thanks to a decades-long relationship with tour operators on the ground in Egypt. But even with that depth of personal contact, she says, it has been touch and go.

“There are people in my group who are very unhappy about not getting on that flight out of Cairo on Monday,” Ms. Goldman says, but the official evacuation flights have been impossibly overbooked. In addition, she adds, many people don’t realize they will face huge additional delays and expenses once they are deposited in the “safe” spots, such as Malta and Athens. “Those repatriation flights are not taking Americans home,” she points out, adding, “and they are not free.”

Indeed, points out State Department spokeswoman, Nicole Thompson, “We are required by law to seek reimbursement, because after all those are taxpayer dollars going into those flights.”

A US government travel warning means there is the possibility the US may not be able to assist its citizens because of events unfolding in a given country. But, Ms. Thompson says for now, if any family members have not been in touch with relatives in Egypt, they should contact the State Department at 1-888-407-4747 with as much personal information as possible and the Cairo Embassy will make every effort to help locate and assist communication.

For those who either don’t want to wait for a commercial flight or are traveling independently, the journey out of a troubled land can be not just pricey but dangerous as well, says New York immigration and naturalization attorney Michael Wildes.

“There are people who can help in these situations,” he says, but these are “mercenaries who fly under the radar.” While most Americans will not have to resort to such extreme solutions in the near future, he adds, the situation in Egypt is volatile and could veer in treacherous directions.

“If President Obama is not seen as supporting the person with his finger on the button of martial law in Egypt,” he says, then Americans could become a target.

Violent scuffles between protesters and American journalists on Wednesday give a hint of the sort of anti-American sentiment that would put pressure on those inside the country to leave.

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann says he and his photographer were beaten up in the main square just three blocks from their hotel. “It flared up out of nowhere,” he says by phone from Cairo, and got brutal fast. His photographer was maced and both were beaten. More important, he points out, “there was nothing about us that marked us as journalists,” because his colleague’s camera was in his pocket. But, he adds, they were definitely identifiable as Americans.

Ms. Amin says her parents are staying safely inside their hotel until they leave. Is she worried? “Of course,” she says with a gentle laugh. She says the first thing her father, who is an engineer, did upon entering Egypt last week was to buy a new Sim card for his phone. Despite the spotty cell phone service in Egypt, “we talk every day and I feel as if I know everything that is going on. That is very important.”

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