For many foreigners fleeing Egypt, a chaotic and tense exit

More than 1,800 Americans have evacuated from Egypt and another 167 were reportedly waiting to leave Cairo's airport today as violent clashes continued.

Victoria Hazou/AP
Tourists make their way to a terminal to attempt to leave Egypt, at Cairo airport, on Feb. 2. The United Nations today began evacuating employees, more than 5,000 people are reportedly waiting in the Cairo airport for a flight out amid the escalating unrest.
Ann Hermes/Staff
The clash between pro- and anti- Mubarak supporters escalated in Cairo's Tehrir Square on Feb. 2. A molotov cocktail set a tree ablaze which spread to a building nearby.

With violence erupting in Cairo’s streets, many foreigners are clamoring to get out of Egypt. Some are being evacuated by their home governments while others, frustrated by responses from embassies, are booking their own flights or opting to stay.

More than 5,000 people are reportedly waiting in the Cairo airport for a flight out amid the escalating unrest. Hundreds of people have been injured and at least 10 killed since Wednesday, when supporters of President Hosni Mubarak clashed with antigovernment protesters in central Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Justin Martin, one of some 1,800 Americans evacuated over the past week, knows first-hand the feeling of helplessness in attempting to flee. The professor at the American University in Cairo says that he and his wife might still be Cairo if he didn't have a friend with embassy contacts who tipped him off to US government-chartered flights preparing to leave.

“We had no communication with the embassy whatsoever,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Athens, where a Jan. 31 evacuation flight had taken him and his wife. The embassy's emergency hotline referred callers to a website, he says, even though Internet had been out for several days at that point. There was no answer on the embassy phone lines.

“The grandest function of embassies abroad is to protect citizens in danger,” Professor Martin says. He says that the US Embassy of Cairo, at least up until the day he and his wife left, had failed to do that.

US continues to charter evacuation flights

Some 3,000 Americans have contacted the US Embassy of Cairo requesting to leave Egypt, and there are plans to continue evacuations over the next few days, according to the US State Department. The Associated Press reports that there were 160 Americans waiting at the airport Thursday morning.

The United Nations today began evacuating employees, two days after the US State Department ordered the evacuation of all nonessential government personnel. A lack of commercial flights has spurred governments to fly their citizens out on charter flights, as the US has done.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said this week the evacuation process is under control and being conducted in an “orderly manner.”

"We’ll have flights [Thursday] and we’ll continue to assess the need for charter flights on Friday," he said mid-week. "We do understand that many Americans have left Egypt through available commercial means. But certainly, the demand for seats to leave Egypt has subsided."

Residents wield guns, nunchucks

That doesn't sound quite accurate to Professor Martin, who described a convoluted and disorganized evacuation process.

Martin, who has lived in Cairo for a year and a half, said he and his wife decided to evacuate on Jan. 29, when they began hearing gunfire in their neighborhood almost an hour from downtown Cairo. After the upscale neighborhood's private security disappeared, residents began arming themselves with guns, swords, and even nunchucks. A call over the loudspeakers of a nearby mosque urged young men to defend their homes from looters.

Martin and his wife were fortunate to get out. Two friends from Puerto Rico were still stuck in Cairo as of Wednesday. They had heard nothing from the embassy or their employer (also the American University in Cairo) on how to evacuate, but seemed to be among many left in the dark.

"How reliable exactly is our US Embassy?" Leanne Graves, a journalist in Cairo, writes on her blog. "If my experience during this crisis in Egypt is any indicator, every American should be worried."

Ms. Graves ended up staying in Cairo after speaking with a government official, who could not guarantee a ticket would cost less than $10,000. While Martin wasn't quoted a flight cost, he and his wife signed promissory notes confirming that they would pay back the US government when they regained access to their bank accounts.

American University in Cairo is scheduled to resume classes Feb. 13, although Martin says he doesn’t foresee the situation calming down in time for that to happen.

“I honestly didn’t [expect this],” he says. “The Mubarak machine has been so good at crushing these kinds of activities in the past.”

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