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Bay Area Residents Share Experiences from Egypt

By Khalida Sarwari (BCN)
Wednesday February 02, 2011 - 01:32:00 PM

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."