From Cairo to London to Göteborg.
My 2½ years in Cairo came to a sudden end. When the protests began we simply just stayed in, we thought that maybe it will be better tomorrow. I called my wife early that Friday morning to tell her that my Vodafone account was blocked and that my Mobinil account was probably going to get blocked as well. I told her to call my parents to let them know I’d stay in the apartment all the time and that they shouldn’t worry, it was “just going to be a demonstration today”, I had even said to my colleagues that “I’ll see you on Sunday” (working day in Egypt).
When they cut the international calls, the mobile network and the Internet it started getting serious. When we saw burning cars and building, chanting and violence/looting we started to get scared. It wasn’t a nice end to an otherwise so great part of my life. From the 19th floor apartment we could see far into the city and the end of the 6th of October bridge which leads into Tahrir square, and we saw everything burning and smoke coming from at least a dozen places.
At around 00:30 local time Friday, I managed to get an international call through calling my parents. After a discussion with my father we decided I’d stay put and see how the next day went. Everywhere the same message came across “Saturday is key… if Saturday is calm it will be ok!”, as it turned out later neither Saturday nor the rest of the week was “Calm”. The next day I went early to the shop to buy some food preparing to stay in for a few days buying bread and butter and cheese and other basic stuff like pasta and chicken and nuts and of course water. When I got into the shop it was like the opening of IKEA in Saudi Arabia… Whole of Zamalek seem to have had the same idea as me… “just in case”. When I got there the shop was trying to bake as much bread as the people would grab them… water shelves completely empty I had to go with small bottles the ones I managed to get my hands on.
After some shopping I got the word that I should get out of the country. I was 3 days away from leaving anyway, it was end of assignment… I couldn’t shake the idea of how bad the timing was, I even joked a bit about it with my friends saying “They knew I was leaving maybe they are angry because of that” and “I can’t believe the timing, couldn’t they have postponed it just one week?”. When I called the London office they quickly arranged a booking on a flight back to London through Athens, I’m glad I got through and that it worked so quickly. This was Saturday, the mobile network was jumpy but worked. I got a booking for the next day… so… no work on Sunday I guess. No proper good byes to friends.
That Saturday was one of the longest to date. It seemed to never end. I was sitting with some friends in their flat, we were all discussing possible ways out… the only thing which made us hesitate was if it was safe to get to the Airport. The police had pulled back from the streets, previously I had been worried that if I went out I would be mistaken for a protester and get the crap beaten out of me but now it was worse. I could reason with a police (to some degree) and at least show that I’m Swedish but to a criminal, which of many was rumoured to be out on the streets, I could not reason with (probably). Stories were going around about people hijacking cars and stealing everything in it.
I decided that the next day I had to try to go to the airport no matter what. I called my driver and he hesitated, understandably, about coming across town just to pick me up and get me to the airport. After a small discussion he said he would come the next morning. He came in a taxi, he couldn’t come in his own car. The curfew had been lifted 30 minutes ago we had to move quickly. On our way to the airport we went across the 6th of October bridge… Empty. All that was left was 3 burned cars on the side of the roads, one of them a police transporter. The evidence on the streets showed that there has been a big battle here, the same battle I had seen on TV the day before. I was relieved it was so calm. On the way we had been stopped 3 times by neighbourhood groups that had formed to protect their areas. The first one was worst as I didn’t know what to expect from these “good guy”-groups but it went well. The bridge leading to the airport was so jammed it felt like going to work in the morning. Good. Military has a small checkpoint. Good, no problems here.
Arriving at the airport I had only 100EGP notes and some coins. Taxi asked for 51EGP I gave him 71EGP “Allah ma3ak” (God be with you) and then I left. I went with my driver into the airport; chaos. People fighting at the ticket offices to buy tickets; they wouldn’t let anyone in to the check-in desks without a physical ticket. I didn’t have one… I tried to convince the first guard that the booking reference and the booking number I was showing him on my smart-phone WAS a ticket he wouldn’t accept it saying it had to be a paper. Giving up I went to another entrance, bingo, this guy was a bit more clever. I said good bye to my driver, put my hands in my pocket and took up all the cash I had left. He has risked something, leaving his family at home, to come and get me. I don’t know how much I gave him exactly but around 400EGP, “Ntibih 3a 7alak…” (Take care of yourself).
After getting in the chaos was worse. People running back and forth, virtually every flight was delayed or cancelled 2 fights broke out at two different check-in desks children crying while their mothers dragging them to hurry somewhere. I didn’t feel scared at any point, just worried that I would have to stay the night like I had heard that many others have had to. After the check-in and past passport security I went to my gate, bought a coffee on the way, an older women asking the person at the till if he accepts cards he said no, only cash. She wanted to buy some water… “What do you need?” I said, she said I only want to buy a coffee and a bottle of water I took up my wallet and looked through all the currencies I always keep as a buffer when travelling, “Here, it is on me..”, giving her $10. Shit I realized afterwards how much that actually was and that she didn’t need that much. Too late now, besides, she might need it later so I justified it with that and forgot about it.
When the plane took off 4 hours later I was realized what had happened. It was a surreal feeling about it, I had not really felt how bad it had been until I was sitting there about to take off. The adrenaline started pumping like mad, which it always does for me when the plane takes off. I forgot about Egypt for a few minutes concentrating on the sound of the air plane engines. Thoughts like “I’m glad they don’t build those like people build software” and “I’m sure that screeching sound is normal” crossed my mind. When we reached cruising altitude the adrenaline wore off. I started feeling “safe”.
Back in London was nice. I meet all my friends and colleagues and told them about my “Escape from Cairo” re-iterating it several times. Constantly watching the news… keeping myself updated, “My friends are still there”. My last day with Erlang Solutions consisted of making sure I didn’t leave any stuff behind and saying good bye to everyone. It was time for me to move back “Home” and starting building a life with my Wife. Talk about timing; Jan 25 uprising in Cairo coincides with my last days of 5 years with Erlang Solutions, I couldn’t help thinking that it would be a good story to tell my grand children some day.
When I landed at Göteborg it felt as if I was on vacation, as if I was going back to Cairo or London soon. It has now sunk in that I won’t. I’m now Home. Chapter 4 starts now…