Getting Out of Cairo: One Bay Area Woman's Story

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    AFP/Getty Images
    People gather in Cairo�s international airport while waiting to check-in for their flights on January 31, 2011 as they try to leave Egypt following days of violent anti-government protests in three decades in a bid to topple President Hosni Mubarak's creaking regime. AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

    When Layma Murtaza touched down at Cairo International Airport in  late August 2010, the first image she saw was of families sitting on the  floor, yelling and having a picnic as they waited for their luggage.

      But when civil unrest erupted across Egypt last week, the Newark  resident studying abroad was among thousands anxiously scrambling to board a  plane out of the country.
     
    "We just knew we had to get out when we heard gun shots in our  neighborhood and outside of our doors," Murtaza wrote in an e-mail message  from Zurich, where she managed to evacuate safely on Monday.
     
    Murtaza, 27, is a graduate of University of California, Davis  currently studying migration and refugee issues at the American University of  Cairo. Like most people, she did not anticipate being swept up in the tide of  revolution that began last week when demonstrators started calling for an end  to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.
     
    Mubarak announced Tuesday he will step down when his term ends in  September, but protesters are demanding his immediate dismissal.
     
    The demonstrations in Egypt ensued soon after protests in Tunisia  last month when its citizens forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to step  down.
     
    Following a massive anti-government demonstration on Friday, the  Egyptian state implemented a curfew and shut down phone and Internet access.  Looting and chaos soon followed, Murtaza said.
     
    On Sunday, she and a friend went out for a walk and noticed that  the streets, typically flooded with cars and people, were "eerily quiet."
     
    "We heard something loud flying towards us and we fell to the  ground because we thought it was like a missile or some type of bomb being  thrown in our direction," Murtaza said. "But when we got up we saw that it  was a fighter jet flying very low to the ground."
     
    Murtaza and others speculated the jets were being used to  intimidate demonstrators.
     
    "In the evening because the chaos was so close to our home we  would push furniture in front of the door and keep forks and knives near us  in case we had to use it and looters were able to break in," she said. "We  turned off all the lights but kept CNN on and hid behind our curtains  watching the commotion that happened from the window."
     
    The demonstrations were just getting under way when Robert Sproul,  the assistant dean of development at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, and  his wife, stepped off a plane in Egypt on Jan. 22.
     
    Sproul was leading a group of Cal alumni on a trip to Cairo, but  it was cut short as a result of the widespread looting, violence and chaos  that escalated over the next few days.
     
    During their weeklong trip, the group stayed in a hotel two blocks  away from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Sproul recalled that on Jan. 23,  he and his group saw 50 to 60 people running past their hotel and he realized  that they weren't jogging but were getting chased.
     
    Then on Thursday, it was the beginning of violent confrontations  resembling "a typical Berkeley clash with police," Sproul said.
     
    He said it was surreal that at the hotel, while waiters served  drinks and children swam in a pool, violence was breaking out all around  them.
     
    The sound of loud explosions from cars that had been set afire  filled the streets, but police were nowhere to be seen that night, he said.  When Sproul and his group walked out of their hotel the next morning, they  found burned cars and graffiti with messages like "Mubarak goodbye."
     
    Sproul said in Tahrir Square, vandals were setting fire to a chain  food restaurant.
     
    "You know, at 63, I've been in riots. I've always been distrustful  of mob scenes," he said.
     
    Sproul and his group decided it was time to leave, but even that  proved to be difficult. He recalled experiencing "sheer pandemonium" at the  airport.
     
    "People were yelling, screaming, crying," he said.
     
    It took 12 hours for half of the group to get on a plane home, and  the other half followed shortly after.
     
    Writing from London on Tuesday, Murtaza said she plans to return  to Cairo eventually, but could not say when that would be.
     
    "I'm really hoping that a solution is near for the Egyptian people  and the government because I want to go back," she said. "I have really grown  fond of Egypt and its people."
     
    Hisham Ahmed, a politics professor at Saint Mary's College of  California, said the movement in Egypt and in surrounding Arab countries is  irreversible and signifies the beginning of a revolutionary change.
     
    "Most of these people, they were born and grew up under the rule  of Mubarak," he said of the country's large youth population facing high  unemployment rates and poverty.
     
    Ahmed said he believes Mubarak will eventually step down, but that  "no one knows how things will be beyond that."
     
    Mubarak has been a longtime ally of the U.S., but the Obama  administration, which has thus far taken a cautious approach in its handling  of the crisis, now must be more vocal in its support for the people, Ahmed  said.
     
    "It's a delicate situation for the Obama administration, but these  are historic times. These are serious times," Ahmed said. "I hope the  administration won't be making the mistake of sending a message to the  Egyptians that their friendship with a dictator is more important than the  welfare of the people."

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