(HN, January 31, 2011) - As protests in Egypt headed into possibly their most tumultuous phase since the January 25 start of open defiance of President Hosni Mubarak, thousands of tourists, business travellers and expatriate workers rushed to international airports to catch evacuation flights home or to nearby safe havens.
At just past 1900GMT Monday an Air Canada Boeing 777 chartered by Ottawa lifted off from Cairo International Aiport for Frankfurt carrying more than 200 Canadian and Australian nationals. As soon as the jet lifted off the runway the weary passengers aboard burst into applause and cheers, relieved to be leaving behnd a city very much on edge.
The anxiety was clearly visible: a Canadian couple from Vancouver Island said they and other tourists endured a sleepless night due to gunfire and thugs who temporarily took over their Cairo hotel.
As if to add insult to injury the Air Canada relief flight almost missed its take-off slot when, at the last minute, Cairo International Airpoprt ground handling crew demanded an unexplained $2000 fee. Livid Canadian Embassy officials quickly gathered up a collection from passengers and the flight was eventually allowed to depart.
There were also indications that airport authorities were deliberately slowing the processing of evacuation flights: the Canadian-Australian flight was threatened with a delay by security officials who claimed the passengers werent properly screened, and then further delayed when no tow could be found to push back the jet from a remote stand.
The hitches infuriated Embassy officials but also many of the travellers - many of whom had harrowing stories to tell of enduring spreading lawlessness throughout the country. Some said the quick exit marked their last experience with Egypt.
The evacuation flights were so hastily organized that some airlines, including Air Canada, brought their own maintenance crews along - just in case of hitches on the ground in Cairo.
Like Canada, several other countries - including the United States, Turkey, Switzerland and Germany - chartered planes to take their stranded nationals out of Egypt. Canada was billing each passenger $400 for the evacuation flight to Frankfurt. Most passengers said they didnt mind absorbing the cost but some questioned why nationals of other countries were offered free passage by their respective governments.
A Canadian passport holder born in China was reportedly told by Chinese officials at the airport he was eligible for free passage to Beijing.
The measures to evacate foreigners were due to the deteriorating security situation as well as massive cancellation of outbound flights, especially by national flag carrier Egypt Air. There are unconmfirmed reports that Cairo Airport will close for at least two days later this week.
Today marked the most chaotic day at Cairo Airport since the crisis began almost a week ago. Tempers flared amid several delays and cancellations. HUMNEWS observed a near riot at desks designated for flights to Gulf countries.
The rush to leave is not misplaced: On Tuesday opposition leaders are calling for a one-milion-person march in central Cairo - just as the Mubarak Administration appears to be positioning itself for a major confrontation. This HUMNEWS correspondent saw several dozen tanks lined up near an urban military base, ready to roll at a moment's notice. There were also several reports of foreign journalists being harassed by security officials: an Al Jazeera crew was among many detained. Others are sauid to have had their equipment confiscated.
An indication of the widespread fear is that many Egyptians residents and visitors who hold Canadian and other passports could be seen queing up for evacuation flights.
As tourists, business travellers and expatriates bid goodbye to Egypt, tourism industry officials fretted about the huge blow to a sector that employs millions of Egyptians and is one of the top foeign exchange earners. The Four Seasons Cairo at First Residences was among many luxury hotels in the city where occupancy dipped to single digit figures.
The immediate impact of the exit of so many foreign professionals at once is also difficult to gauge. For example, the Air Canada flight carried at least a dozen staff from the Canadian International School in Cairo. There was no indication when they would return to resume teaching.
What is certain is that millions of Egyptians will be forced to endure a temporary economic slowdown - perhaps the price to be paid for removing the current regime.
David Hill, a British expatriate who manages a building site employing 1000 Egyptians, said it was impossible for him to to continue construction at a time when all of his employees insisted on staying home to protect their properties and valuables.