What have been the “defining moments” of your life?
What are the most important situations and events you’ve experienced that have shaped you as a human being? Have you ever experienced an event that was so deeply intense, or powerful, or scary or or moving that it changed you to the core?
I think it’s difficult to get through life without having at least a few experiences like that… And if you live the way Missy and I do, you’ll probably encounter a few more than average.
We spend the winters in a different part of the world every year with our children. Last year we lived on the beautiful island of Bali for 5 months, the year before we had an epic South East Asian Adventure... And this year we decided to live in the Middle East; the Arab Emirates, Oman, Lebanon and Egypt.
Travel is one of our greatest passions. We’ve enjoyed over 20 years of intense, focused, adventure travel together. We’ve shared MANY life-changing experiences, which have made us smarter, shaped our lives, our parenting philosophy and our relationship. But nothing could have prepared us for what we would experience in Cairo in the winter of 2011…
Missy and I have been to Egypt before. It’s simply the best sightseeing trip in the world, bar none. We wanted to experience the amazing sights with our family and friends this year, so we decided to live in Cairo for a month and host a couple Lifebook Trips while we were there.
The first 2 Lifebook Trips were wonderful. Great friends, great food and great conversation. we had fantastic times in Cairo visiting the main sights; the Citadel, the Kan el Kalili market, the Egyptian Museum and of course, the great pyramids of Giza. Next was 4 days on the Nile River visiting the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Karnak, Kom Obo and Edfu. It’s an epic trip and every Lifebook Member who joined us reported that it was a mind-expanding adventure they would never forget.
Missy and I decided to take a little break before the final Lifebook group arrived, to escape the noise and clutter of Cairo for Sharm El Shiek, a tiny resort town on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. It was beautiful, peaceful and relaxing in Sharm… But while we were there we heard a lot of talk of civil unrest; mainly in Suez, Alexandria and Cairo. Inspired by the recent events in Tunisia, there were riots all over Egypt that Wednesday, organized on Facebook and Twitter. We watched the local news closely while we were in Sharm, because we were planning to return to Cairo that Thursday to meet the 3rd Lifebook group.
THURSDAY, January 27, 2011
Just before boarding the plane for Cairo Thursday morning, we watched clerics all over Cairo on TV calling for a “National Day of Rage” on Friday in Tahrir Square following the afternoon prayers… Hmmm… Not sure exactly what a “Day of Rage” is, but it sounds like something we may want to steer clear of…
We arrived in Cairo around lunchtime. On our way to the hotel from the airport, we noticed a serious build up of police and military vehicles on the streets. This actually made us feel more secure than apprehensive… Police armed with automatic weapons can make most tourists nervous, but we’ve come to learn that it;s usually a good thing, a sign of security.
We checked into the Sofitel in Central Cairo, which is located on a small island in the Nile. This island connects Tahrir Square via two bridges, one directly below our hotel room balcony and one farther up the Nile. We thought to ourselves, “if the Day of Rage happens in Tahrir Square, we’re going to have a pretty good view…”
Most of the Lifebook Members who were scheduled to join us on that last trip had canceled due to the civil unrest in Egypt or really bad weather in the States. But two of our best friends, John and Meredith arrived to meet us that afternoon and checked into the hotel. Two of our other friends, Brad and Julie, were scheduled to arrive the following evening.
Things started to get very tense early that evening. The square below us began to fill up with small groups of Egyptians, just standing around, watching and waiting… By dinnertime, the Egyptian government had cut off Internet and cell phone service to the entire country, blacked out local news and Al Jezeera TV, and imposed a strict 5:00 PM curfew. They were obviously preparing for something big. We were stuck in our hotel and our only source of information was international news; CNN and BBC.
The city was relatively quiet that night, but you could cut the tension with a knife. Everyone knew that this was the calm before the storm…
FRIDAY, January 28,2011
I decided to take a long run in the streets of Cairo to gauge the scene for myself. I had to know if my family was in danger – and I don’t tend to trust the news as a valid source of information (a position that was completely validated by this experience)… I took my cell phone with me just in case there were some good photo opportunities – and off I went.
I crossed the small bridge to the left bank of the Nile and ran to the far bridge and crossed into Tahrir Square (15 May Bridge). As I entered the square, I noticed that there were few protestors, mostly just small groups milling around like the night before, but literally thousands of armed police in full riot gear – helmets, shields, batons and guns. They were organized in columns and pack tightly into dozens of heavily armored vehicles.
There were also hundreds of “plain clothes policeman” who’s job it was to snatch and smash cameras, cell phones and video recorders from anyone and everyone trying to record the scene, so the police could not be blamed. This had been reported by BBC, and the report was accurate. I was immediately accosted by a large group of aggressive, plain clothes Arabs, who ordered me to surrender my cell phone. I had not taken any pictures, so I simply refused to give up my cell phone. They pushed and I pushed back and shoved my way through them as they shouted and grabbed at me. I decided to get out of there NOW. As I began my return across the bridge, walking alone through column after column of riot police, being stared at menacingly by all of them, my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. This army this was not for show, they meant business and this was a serious situation. It was going to be a real war.
When I returned, I told Missy, John and Mere that Cairo was going to EXPLODE that afternoon. And boy, was I right…
NOTE: all the photos on this post were taken from our hotel room balconies and they can all be enlarged by clicking on them.
The Nile River splits Cairo in two, and whoever controls the bridges controls the city. The police set up a barricade on the bridge right below us, to keep the steadily growing crowd of protesters from crossing into Tahrir Square. But the angry crowd continued to swell, they began to push the police back, slowly and methodically. The police did not put up much of a fight. There was no intense violence, no clubbing or shooting, mostly just pushing and shoving. There were just too many protesters and too few police to engage the chanting crowd. So they left 2 of their armored vehicles behind and retreated across the main bridge into Tahrir Square, where they joined with thousands of reinforcements…
The jubilant mob continued to push forward for more than an hour and took the main bridge leading to Tahrir Square.
Then all hell broke loose. Armored vehicles and columns of thousands of armed police came blasting out of Tahrir square and met the protesters on the bridge, firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets into the front lines of the crowd. The protesters fought back fiercely, returning tear gas canisters, brandishing clubs, bricks and anything else they could find to fight with. It was a massive crush with literally tens of thousands of people on the bridge… Click on the pictures below and take a look at what was happening on that bridge. It was mind-boggling…
The battle raged for at least 2 hours, but the police finally took back the bridge and pushed the protesters all the way back to the small square below our hotel room balcony. It was a bloody fight with many, many casualties…
It all took place right in front of us, with a mob of thousands surging into the driveway of our hotel at one point. We had no security. The hotel staff, bell boys and cooks were at the front gates, taking care of the wounded protestors who were carried into our hotel, which had become a makeshift ER. All the hotel elevators were shut down as a precautionary measure in case the hotel was over run. All phone lines were cut. And all we could do now was watch in awe with John, Mere and the kids as the battle raged below us…
Meanwhile, the city of Cairo began burning all around us. Fire after fire appeared on the hroizon. Columns of black smoke were everywhere. The sound of automatic gunfire and explosions were non-stop. Tear gas and smoke were so thick in the city that we could barely stay on our balconies to take photos. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing… We were in the middle of a war zone.
Brad and Julie were scheduled to land right about that time. There was absolutely no way to contact them to tell them what was going on. No way to warn them. No way to know if their plane had even landed or if they were met at the airport by our guide… I turned to John and said, “I don’t know where Brad and Julie are going to sleep tonight, but it’s not going to be here…”
THE TURNING POINT
It was just about then that we literally witnessed the TURNING POINT of the battle for Tahrir Square from our window – and I was lucky enough to get the whole thing on film. I’ve not seen a photo sequence like this ANYWHERE in Cairo reports, not even on the CNN. Here’s what happened:
A small group of armored vehicles charged the crowd, followed by dozens of police with guns and clubs. The gunman inside the vehicle was shooting anyone and everyone in sight. But the driver got a bit too confident and drove too far out in front of his reinforcements, he got separated from the other armed vehicles and the foot soldiers… And the angry crowd literally charged the vehicle from all sides, smashing into it with stones, clubs and their bodies. They were able to stop the vehicle and we thought for sure that they would turn it over and kill everyone inside. But somehow, the driver managed to get it going again and turn the corner (barely), running a few people over in the process – and unbelievably, he got away.
And that is when the momentum of the afternoon totally shifted. The angry mob of thousands chased the police and the vehicles, which turned tail and fled over the bridge. Fast. The entire mob poured out of the square to retake the bridge and scatter the police, chasing them down the street for over a mile. And it was OVER. The protestors had won the day. The police retreated all the way back to Tahrir square and simply fell apart. By nightfall, they had completely disappeared from the streets and the mob controlled the city.
Take a look at these extraordinary pictures from the sequence above.
Miraculously, our other friends Brad and Julie arrived to the hotel safely from the airport that evening, driving through the streets of burning tires and upturned cars. They had left the states before the riots began and had NO IDEA what they were driving into… By the time they arrived all hell had broken loose in Cairo, but our amazing guide Machmood had collected them at the airport and navigated them through the riots to the hotel.
All through the night there was constant gun-fire and explosions. The streets were littered with burning police vehicles and other cars, trucks and piles of burning tires. Buildings were burning and exploding all around us. The smoke and tear gas were so thick in the city that we couldn’t even open our windows. Missy and I put the kids to bed (they were exhausted from the day) and watched CNN and BBC until we fell into a not-so-sound sleep…
SATURDAY, January 29,2011
The next morning, John, Brad and I decided to go out to assess the aftermath of the riots for ourselves. Tanks rolled through the streets everywhere. Our eyes burned from the smoke and tear gas that had permeated the city. There were smoldering and burning buildings, hundreds of burned out cars, trucks and police vehicles littered the sides of the road, shop windows had been smashed, gates and fences torn down – it had obviously been full-scale mayhem all night long.
Even thought it was early, there were still thousands of people on the streets, some still marching and chanting, some just viewing the aftermath and taking pictures… But NO police. They were GONE. The Cairo police force, which had been over 250,000 strong, had completely been beaten down by the people the night before and they had completely disappeared from the scene.
During our time in Cairo we learned that Egyptians HATE the police and view them as hired thugs whose primary purpose is to oppress, strong-arm and shake down the people. They are incredibly corrupt (Missy and I were actually accosted and shaken down TWICE on this trip by the police) and much of the “Night of Rage” was understandably directed against the them.
But now the police were gone, and they had been replaced by a huge show of military force; tanks, armored vehicles, big guns, serious weaponry and thousand of “real solders”.
The Egyptian people LOVE their military they view them as heros. It was so strange, the tanks and army were received with cheers and jubilation everywhere they went. They crowds would make way for the tanks, cheer and throw flowers, while trying to grab hold of the soldiers and shake their hands. And the military loved the people too, waving and smiling back. We thought to ourselves, there is NO WAY that the army will open fire on these people. No way…
The feeling on the streets was an interesting mix of jubilation from the victory of the night before – and a LOT of tension, because A) this war wasn’t over yet – not by a long shot and B) No one knew what the military was going to do. They were clearly the “wild card” at this point:
- If the military supported Mubarak (who was a long time Military man) they would be forced to fight against the people, whether they liked it or not. And that would not be pretty…
- But it was also in their power to overthrow the Mubark regime any time they wanted to. All they had to do was say the word and the entire population of Egypt would support them.
The truth was, NO ONE knew what they were going to do… And at this point, they were taking no position at all. They were simply keeping peace in the streets.
We stayed in the streets of Cairo for hours, talking to people, taking pictures (carefully) and surveying the seen. We felt no anti-western sentiment at all from the crowds. We talked to many people and they were honest and open with us. Friendly and excited to talk about what was happening.
There was NO religious fervor – this was CLEARLY not about Muslim vs. Christian, or the west, or anti-America – DESPITE the fact the CNN did their BEST to make this revolution all about America, using slanted questions about the “US supporting the Mubarak regime” and constant references to “the Muslim Brotherhood” in just about every interview. They were doing their best to sensationalize and escalate an already stained situation and incite hatred toward the west. But most of all, they were SELLING FEAR to Egyptians at home and the rest of the world abroad, which is what the news seems to do best these days… Uh oh, I feel a big rant coming on, but I’ll save that for a later date:-)
When John, Brad and I got to Tahrir Square, there were about 10,000 protesters, many fewer than the night before. Some had been there all night and were literally sleeping on the ground. But as the morning wore on, larger and larger groups of chanting Egyptians made their way to the square to join the growing crowd.
While we felt no imminent personal danger, it was tense and nerve-wracking to be out in the streets, because there were lots of guns and tanks everywhere and a growing mob of angry protesters marching, shouting and milling around. We got a little nervous because the 5 main exits to the square were cut off by tanks and soldiers. If an incident were to break out there, we would have been trapped in the middle of it with no way to escape. So we decided to make our way out of the square and go back to the hotel to give the report of what we’d seen to the girls.
There were more big protests that night, more violence, more fires – and all with no police on the streets. Egyptian citizens formed vigilante groups to guard their homes and property. We stayed inside the hotel that night and put the kids to sleep with the familiar sounds and smells of mortars gunfire, and burning buildings all around us. We decided that we would plan our escape the following morning.
SUNDAY, January 30,2011
On Sunday morning, we woke up to sound of helicopters and jet fighters flying low over Cairo, in some kind of bizarre show of force. As the jets broke the sound barrier right over our hotel, the building shook like it was going to fall apart. The Egyptian army had brought out the big weaponry now, and we decided then and there that it was time to get the &*#!%! out of Cairo.
It was imperative that we get good information in order to make our escape with the kids. And that was going to be difficult, because we had no internet, the news was no help at all. Luckily, we did have cell phone service again, it had be restored the evening before. We were able to call and text family and friends in the states, but the information coming from the States was worse than second hand and horribly distorted. No help at all…
The most important thing for us to understand was the situation at the airport. THAT was the key… And the meager, disjointed reports we’d gotten from sources in Cairo and abroad did not paint a pretty picture.
We talked to everyone we could in the hotel and the streets about the situation in the airport, including 2 ladies who had personally spent 9 hours there the day before, trying to get out of the country. Here’s what they had to say:
“The Cairo airport is a compete disaster, BEYOND insane. No one is in charge, there is no security, no one knows what the air traffic control situation is. Just navigating to get TO the airport, through the military and armed street gangs is a challenge in itself. Once you’re there, it will take you 2 hours to get through the crush at the front door, and that is if you bribe the security police with 1000 Egyptian pounds. If you get in, you’re packed like sardines with panicked, angry people all pushing toward the check in counters. There is no food, no water, so be prepared to take a couple days of supplies if necessary. We couldn’t find the Lufthansa counter, because the monitors were down. When we finally found where the counter was supposed to be, we waited 4 hours in a stampede of people and no one helped us. There was no one TO help us. The crews and employees of most airlines simply didn’t show up for work. Most flights never took off. After 9 hours, we just gave up and came back to the hotel. We’re going to wait 3 or 4 days and try again…”
This was not a good report!
So, we talked it down with John and Brad. What were our options? After exploring all the possibilities, we were left with 4 possible choices:
- Stay put in the hotel, where we had food and water and our kids were fairly safe. DOWNSIDE: hotel employees we not showing up for work (they had already closed 3 of the hotel restaurants leaving only one to feed all the people who were trapped there, there were no employees to clean rooms, they had closed the business center as well as most other facilities), which meant that this oasis could eventually dry out. The intensity and violence in Cairo could escalate and with absolutely NO police on the streets, the hotel might no longer be safe, and an escape would be much more dangerous.
- Try to seek safe haven in the US Embassy. DOWNSIDE: the Embassy was right in Tahrir Square, and I did not relish the thought of trying to navigate my family through the streets to get there and join what would likely be thousands of panicked Americans sleeping on blankets on the floor, waiting for the government to “process” them.
- Try for the airport and take a commercial flight to an Arab country. From the meager amount of information we were able to gather, the Terminal 1 flights to other Arab nations were going out more regularly than anything else. Emirates Air, Etihad, Gulf Air etc. We already had tickets on a Gulf Air flight to Bahrain the next day, so this was a serious possibility.
- Try for the Airport and the State Department Evacuation Flights. The American Embassy was evacuating Americans (50,000 people, they reported) and flying to 3 cities, Ankara, Athens and Sophia, Bulgaria. You were not allowed to CHOOSE your destination, you were only allowed 1 small bag each, and they could not guarantee that families would all be on the same flight. So f*ck that.
After a very intense day and night of talking to locals, calling the local airlines, consulting with AMEX travel agents and texting the US trying to get advice from ANYONE who knew ANYTHING about the situation on the streets or at the airport, we formulated the best plan we could based on the information we had…
It was going to be option #3. We were going to try for the airport the next morning and get out on the Gulf Air Flight to Bahrian. That flight had gone out the day before and they were planning to go out that day too. And we were going to be on that plane, come hell or high water.
John and Meredith were going to try it with us. They had made reservations on an Alitalia flight to Rome that same afternoon. They called the airline and the flight was still scheduled to depart on time just like ours. So the 6 of us decided to try for the airport together. Brad and Julie were scheduled to leave the next day on Air France and decided to wait for our report from the airport before making their final decision.
MONDAY, January 31,2011
We woke up early, pulled together some provisions, loaded our bags in the car and headed to the airport. We were expecting the worst, but we were ready to face it head on. We were an army of 4 – and with John and Mere, that made 6. Plus our guide Mauchmoud and our armed security guard were with us.
We took off from the hotel and were stopped many times by the military and armed Egyptians who were protecting their neighborhoods, but we were never detained (unlike SO many others we saw on the way). Once they saw we were tourists they would usually wave us on. There were dozens of tanks and thousands of soldiers everywhere on the streets, along side protestors. We had the kids count all the tanks and burned out cars they saw to occupy their time along the way. It was a very tense ride to the airport, but we were focused, paying attention and ready for battle if need be.
Fighting our way through a traffic jam of epic proportions, we finally got near the airport. Aa couple kilometers away, I decided to jump out with our guide and walk though the crazy traffic and the crush of people, so I could understand what we’d be up against once we got to the terminal. I did not want to lead my family into a dangerous situation if it was somehow avoidable…
The entrance to the airport was UNBELIEVABLE. I mean, it was seriously like the evacuation in the final days of Viet Nam… Or when the Shah’s regime fell in Iran. A mob of hundreds crushing, shouting and fighting to shove their luggage through a broken security belt and get through the narrow front door and into the terminal. It was literally dangerous for anyone who wasn’t physically strong. At one point, I had to protect a baby in a stroller behind me from getting crushed by big Arab guy with bags, who I literally punched in the chest. Hard. Twice.
I fought my way in through security, slowly and methodically. I had no luggage with me, which helped…. When I reached the broken security counter, the guard demanded my passport and flight itinerary, which we did not even look at. I realized there was NO functional security at the Cairo Airport. Nice…
Once I got through the narrow entrance, the crush of the mob lightened a bit. It was still dangerously crowded inside, but at least not like the intense stampede at the front entrance… My next job was to find my family and get them in – then we could figure out what to do from there.
Here is a copy of the text between Missy and me over the next few minutes:
Jon: Lover, where r u? (again 5 minutes later) where r u?
Missy: Just pulling up now
Jon: It’s crazy at the front. 2 dangerous for the kids. Stay away. Go past. I think here r 2 other entrances. Checking now. Don’t stop in the front.
Missy: We r past. Already at the back – trying to get thru.
Jon: Where r u?
Jon: I want to fight for you, I can’t get there. Where r u?
Missy: At the last gate. Mauchmoud is here. I’ve got the kids. We can fight thru.
Jon: B careful. Keep the kids in front.
Missy: John and Mere have the bags. I have the kids.
Jon: OK, I see you now! See u inside.
I literally shoved my way to the back entrance where Missy was being questioned aggressively by security. She didn’t have her boarding pass (I’d taken it with me). Our guide, Mauchmoud fought the police, who simply didn’t have TIME to worry about protocol, so they let her though. We quickly pulled the kids into the terminal and collected our bags. John, Mere. Missy, Jade, Justin and me. We were all here…
Mauchmoud grabbed John & Mere immediately and found their counter, which was not quite as crazed as the other counters for some reason. Mauchmoud was able to secure their boarding passes and get their bags checked in. We hugged John & Mere, said good-bye and promised to let each other know when we were safe – them in Rome and us in Bahrain.
Now to find the Gulf Air counter in this crush of panicked humanity…
Since we were flying on an Arab airline, there were no tourists on our flight… Just many, many frightened Egyptian families trying to flea their own country, many of which didn’t even have tickets yet but trying to fight for them at the airport… It was crazy!
We found Gulf Air. The line was a fistfight, like the most violent mosh pit at the most extreme Nine Inch Nails concert ever. Mauchmoud told us to wait at the back and fought his was alone to the front of the line (we could NEVER have done this without him). Once he was up there, he shouted for our bags, which I lifted and passed over the heads of dozens of screaming Arabs.
We somehow got the bags tagged. We got our boarding passes. We made our way to immigration and hugged Mauchmoud to thank him for all he’d done. We would not have a CHANCE of making it through this without him. We cleared immigration (though it’s slower when the 6 guys in front of you have 4 wives each to process) and then we got through security, such that it was…
We found ourselves in the Gate area for Gulf Air flight 30 to Bahrain, keeping our fingers crossed that it would fly that afternoon…
2 hours later, we were sitting in our seats. The kind stewardess offered us orange juice. We informed her, kindly but with resolve, that we’d prefer Champagne instead. She happily obliged. Missy and I clicked our glasses together twice (our personal custom) and though the plane was still on the runway, I must admit that a glass of Champaign has NEVER, EVER tasted so good…
The Gulf Air flight took off about 3 hours late, but it DID take off… As the wheels left the ground, we knew that our epic Cairo adventure had come to an end.
We had experienced history in the making. We’d been faced with some extremely difficult decisions, often armed with nothing but our instincts. And we had made them very well. Most of all, we were together, healthy and SAFE.
We slept for 14 straight hours when we got to Bahrain. We were absolutely exhausted. The events in Cairo had taken SO much more out of us than we realized while they were occurring… Within 36 hours we’d gotten word that John and Mere had arrived safely in Rome, and Brad and Julie had arrived safely in Paris. All was well… Now to relax, recover and take good care of each other…
So what did we learn from this intense, extreme experience? How did it affect our relationship? How did it affect our children? Will it change the way we live our lives in the future? Will it change the way we travel? Did it change our views on politics? On religion? On the media? Did it change the way we feel about America? About the potential to change? About FREEDOM?
These are interesting questions, some of which we’re still processing…
We would love to know your thoughts. How did you view the events as told by the media as you watched it unfold in real time? How did you feel when you read about our experience? How does all this make you feel about America, about the media, about FREEDOM? What were YOUR lessons? What were YOUR take-aways?
There are many, many rich veins of treasure to mine in the extraordinary story of the Lotus Revolution in the winter of 2011. Let’s discuss it and see if we can unearth a few gems together.
- Jon Butcher
February 14, 2011