Getting Out: No Resolution to Turmoil in Egypt
When the group of twenty eight American travelers embarked from a snowy New York airport January 18, their biggest concern was that there would be no winter weather delay. Less than a week later, getting on any flight that would bring them to safe haven, away from the confrontations and virtual anarchy that have engulfed Egypt and brought rioting to the streets of Cairo was their prime concern.
With the United States urging its citizens to evacuate Egypt as soon as possible, but flights being cancelled, the group, some with identifiably Jewish names, found itself unable to leave. It was restricted to its hotel in Cairo, confined in relative security behind a blockade of Egyptian tanks. Overhead, American made F-16 fighters streaked across the sky. “They are doing everything” assured the CEO of Tauck Tours. His company had, he said been working with the State Department, he said and had “a 99% chance – it’s a go.” As backup, tickets were reserved on still flying European carriers, “just in case.”
Group members initially resolved to remain together – safety in numbers -but by late Sunday, many realized that getting out by whatever means possible was priority. Tauck actually agreed to have its staff escort individuals to the airport, if necessary. In New York, friends and family were proactive, making back up reservations and contacting government offices. “I am not taking another chance that they miss a perfectly good flight out!” said the daughter of one tour member. Transportation other than air was ruled out as “too dangerous, given the gunfire in the streets.”
Stateside, calls were placed to the offices of constituents’ Congressional representatives; contact and identification information was provided as requested.
The imposition of the 4 PM curfew in Cairo has caused difficulty for international airlines whose scheduled flights arrive in the evening. Delta, the only American flag carrier flying into Cairo has suspended flights. El Al added flights to airlift Israeli nationals to safety. Norwegian Cruise Line re routed its cruise ship from Alexandria to Istanbul. Tourists and Egyptians who were able – the rich, the political – were using every means to leave the unpredictable situation. The exodus of businessmen, celebrities, and the (currently) politically connected, initiated by the departure of President Mubarak’s wife and son more than a week ago, did little to quell the panic. Getting out of the beleaguered city remains difficult.
The tour group members were treated well.
Tourism is a major employer in Egypt. When the industry was disrupted following terrorist attacks in the Luxor area the loses ran to the millions of dollars. The potential economic impact of Egypt’s political unrest will result in heavy financial loss. Poverty “in the street” remains rampant. Protestors blame the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, a thirty year dictatorship. Unemployment, widespread corruption and police brutality are widespread.
As massive demonstrations continue in Cairo, it appears that the army, always close to the regime, will hold a key to the outcome. For the immediate, the military appears to have decided to keep order but avoid confrontation with the protesters. Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s appointed vice president, his “right hand” confidant, is a former army general and head of the intelligence services. He was considered ruthless, but is said to have leadership and mediation skills. Despite his early training in the former Soviet Union, he is generally well liked in the West.
The spread of Islamic rule and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic extremist group active in Egypt, could abrogate decades old treaties with Israel, and provide Al-Queda with an additional base of operation is frightening to Western thinkers. The long term response of the military, generally considered pro west and (at the officer level) part of the elite of the society, is unpredictable.
The return of Noble Laureate Mohammed ElBaradei to his native Egypt adds another set of factors. Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Director of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations finds the fact that the former IAE commissioner is “being lionized” as a human rights activist to be of great concern, saying Jewish leaders must remember his outright “cover-ups” of the nuclear activities of Iran.
Some see ElBaradei as a “transitional” figure. He is well known and has visited Israel several times. Certainly not a stranger, he is not considered friendly towards Israel where his “soft” attitude towards Iran seems to have assisted its nuclear development. He is also not one has had any significant level of practical government experience, and may be seen as a transition figure used as a bridge until a “real power broker” arrives. “Saad el-Katatni, a Muslim Brotherhood member said ElBaradei would be a member of a committee, but not necessarily its leader – unless the members elect him.”
Or, will the ever politically aware Mubarak seek to incorporate Mohammed ElBaradei into the government, effectively stemming his active opposition. Should he accept an offer of leadership of a government department and a program of effective reforms, Mubarak’s presidency could remain intact and create a climate for increased political stability.
In a teleconference, Aluf Benn, long time analyst and commentator on politics in the Middle East said the most desirable result would be the continuation of the current political structure. “If Israeli leaders could have one wish, it would be to extend Mubarak’s regime.” He believes. The regime was a “cornerstone” for 30 years, provided stability, allowing the reduction of military activity along the “peaceful” Egyptian border. With its sophisticated, largely American made military machine, Egypt under a radical regime could prove a major threat.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped Israel’s three-decade-old peace treaty with Egypt would survive any changes that were taking place in Cairo. Netanyahu has refrained from direct comment on the unrest against Israel’s “most significant and long-standing ally in the Arab world.” Asked about the situation, he replied: “We are all following with vigilance, with worry and hope that indeed the peace and stability will be preserved,” alluding to the treaty Israel signed with Egypt in 1979, it’s first of two with an Arab nation.
“Our real fear is of a situation that could develop … and which has already developed in several countries including Iran itself, repressive regimes of radical Islam.” He said Israel had to exercise “responsibility and restraint,” suggesting he wanted to avoid any appearance of involvement in the Egyptian dispute.
February 1: Tauck Tours has informed the Algemeiner that all of its”travelers have safely left the country” as of Tuesday. The company’s scheduled departures to Egypt through February 7 have been cancelled.