Visitor to Egypt describes protests

First-person account tells of kindness, hospitality, riots, tear gas and fighter jets
By: Jess Steinmetz Special to the Journal
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Editor’s note: Jess Steinmetz, daughter of Greenwood resident Jonna Steinmetz, is visiting Egypt from China, where she teaches at an international school. It has been my dream for years to travel to Egypt. Although this trip has turned out to be entirely different than what I expected, it has been an amazing and exciting experience. Furthermore, it is also very different from the terrifying situation one may imagine if all you know is what you see on television. Despite all the violence, I have always been surrounded by hospitable Egyptians who made me feel safe.  When we first arrived in Cairo, there were no protests. When they did start, it turned into a constant conversation topic with everyone we met — foreigners and Egyptians alike. To this day, I have only met one Egyptian who expressed favorable opinions of (President Hosni)Mubarak. Most tell stories of how he is a heartless man who will do anything to have power.  On Jan. 26 and 27, we saw the riot police with their helmets, shields and armored vans. We first saw the riots on Jan. 28 while walking around the city. Even though the protest looked very peaceful, we cautiously stayed across the street. I was able to snap a few pictures before the police insisted we move along. They clearly did not want us taking pictures. That day we headed to Alexandria as originally planned. When we woke up the following morning, the Internet was blocked and most cell phones could not even make local calls. My first thought was that my mom would be worried when she failed to receive my latest update. As we visited various sites in Alexandria, local Egyptians would come up to us and warn us from going a certain way because the riots were there. While sitting by the water eating lunch, we felt tear gas even though we could not hear or see the riots. We walked through the streets holding tissues to cover our faces from the gas. My friend’s eyes burned so bad tears fell down. My eyes barely felt any pain but my nose and throat burned. When I started severely coughing, local men came up to me to see if I was OK and urged me to drink water.  At this point we were far from our hostel with no taxis in sight. As we continued walking, the effects of the tear gas diminished. We could see smoke in the distance, which we later found out was from tires that protesters set on fire. As we walked along the Corniche, we saw two protests. The first was small and peaceful. The second one seemed to go on forever. We were a safe distance from the protest until it suddenly turned and protesters began throwing rocks at the armored vans. A local man who was talking with us at the time shielded us and helped us get to a safe place. This was the only time on my trip when I felt scared and this fear lasted for less than two minutes. The next morning there were tanks everywhere. No one, however, seemed intimidated by them. People took pictures with them and I even saw a few who climbed up onto them. The soldiers did not seem to mind in the least.  A curfew of 4 p.m. was set. We did not know about this until past 4 when we were urged to hurry back. The hostel employees were relieved to see us; they were worried something had happened to us. The next day we saw destruction from the night before. Glass was smashed in at a few spots. One or two buildings were burned along with several armored vans. Since the only tourist spot we had not yet seen was closed because of the riots, we decided to get out of Alexandria as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this was not such a simple process. We ended up spending the night in the train station as train after train was cancelled. The trainmaster was very concerned about us and had someone go with me whenever I left to go get a new ticket. He even had someone accompany us to our seats to ensure we easily found our way. Eventually we got out of Alexandria and back to Cairo. Cairo was a disaster. Everything seemed to be closed. It proved impossible to get a bus or train ticket out. We finally returned to our hostel where they offered to make us dinner (at no extra cost) since all the restaurants and most shops were closed. We ate dinner listening to the fighter jets roaring around Cairo. At this point, there was no police presence in Cairo and as a result there was a number of looters. When looters were caught by locals, they were searched and often found to be carrying government or police identification - a sign that Mubarak may be encouraging his people to cause unrest so that the international community does not side with the anti-Mubarak protesters. Shops had spray-painted their windows white so looters could not see what was inside. Individuals appointed themselves to direct traffic since the police who usually do this were gone. Each neighborhood established a neighborhood watch to protect their community.  That night we met the local neighborhood watch - three middle age men and two of their 11-year-old sons. They were determined to keep their community safe. The young boys reminded me of my sixth grade students back in Shanghai. Ahmed was armed with a golf club and Salam had a metal club. At the first sign of real danger, the boys would immediately be sent inside but until then they were thrilled to be a part of a historic event.  The men were very hospitable and enjoyed telling us about their country. As soon as tea was brought out for them, they insisted we have some first. They told us stories of their government’s corruption. For example, some people have been filling parts of the Nile River with sand and selling the property for high prices. The local man who told me this was aghast that someone would treat the lifeline of Egypt in such a manner and reported it. Nothing was done, of course, because the government was getting kickbacks.  The neighborhood watch also told us a story that we heard from countless other sources. When looters tried to break into the Egyptian Museum, protesters linked arms and encircled the museum to prevent looters from damaging the museum. The neighborhood watch wanted to protect the history of their country and were horrified that people would try to loot such an important museum.  The next day we debated our options. I called the American Embassy since I saw on the news that they were offering to help get Americans out of Cairo. The man who answered the phone told me to go to the airport and then rudely hung up on me before I could ask any questions. I knew the airport was a hot mess and it would be days before we would be able to fly out. Instead we left for Dahab, a tourist town by the Red Sea. We were reassured by locals that this was a good place to go since there were no riots and no curfew.  On our way to Dahab, we were stopped at over a dozen checkpoints. At each stop, military men with guns and bayonets came to check identification of everyone on the bus. Sometimes they carefully examined our passports. Other times they did not even ask for them. I did notice, however, that they always checked the identification of all the males on board. One accidentally bumped his bayonet into my shoe. He felt horrible and profusely apologized. Now we are in Dahab, which is completely safe. Of course, Dahab is experiencing some of the same problems as other places in Egypt. At first the Internet was still blocked (it now works), banks are closed, and most ATMs are not working. Other than that, you would never guess what is happening in other places in Egypt. Ever since I have arrived in Egypt, I have been treated with complete respect. Many may be surprised by this since I am both an American and a woman in a Muslim country in the Middle East. Everyone I meet in Egypt asks where I am from. When I reply that I am American, I am usually told either “I love America!” or “The USA is so good!” In fact, I have only heard one negative comment about the US since I arrived in Egypt. It was from a man who was critical of (President Barack) Obama for not doing anything about Mubarak since he considered him to be a cruel dictator that the people clearly do not want. This man, however, was equally critical of other leaders in the Middle East for this same reason. Currently violence is erupting in Cairo between pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak protesters. I have heard rumors that people are actually paid to go to the pro-Mubarak riots. I can neither confirm nor deny this but it certainly would not surprise me. There have been reports in the news about Westerners being targeted. I have not experienced this in any way, shape or form. On the contrary, I feel that the locals have gone out of their way to protect me and make me feel safe. Furthermore, they have not asked for anything in return. As of now, we are safe and deciding what to do next. I would like to thank everyone for their concern about my safety. Both my mother and I have received countless messages from people worried about me. I would especially like to thank my amazing mother who always supports and worries about me no matter where in the world I am. Inshallah (God willing in Arabic) the protests will end soon and life in Egypt will return to normal.