Not the Egypt They Knew: Experiences of an American Expat During the Arab Spring


They encountered a group of men who were armed with large sticks, and not smiling...

They encountered a group of men who were armed with large sticks, and not smiling…

In the early spring of 2011, I was visiting Cairo. I I flew out on a Saturday, and I remember one of the oil men at the expat club saying that they had been warned not to go out on Tuesday, Police Day. I mentioned this to Ahmed, the guide whom my friend Leyla and I have employed for years, and he said, in his sing-song English, “Well that is ridiculous Leni” (he calls me by my nickname “Leni”).

     The following Tuesday the demonstrations of the Arab Spring began!

     My friend Bev was working at that time as a teacher in an expensive private school in Maadi, an upscale area of Cairo. Her husband worked at another school, one which was American-owned.

     Part of Maadi was filled with expats working in Cairo, and on the other side of the Metro line lived omfortably-off Egyptians. On weekday mornings a van from the school would pick up teachers and students who lived in Maadi. Then the demonstrations started, and internet and some phone lines stopped working.

     I was quite worried, and about that time I frantically e-mailed my friend Leyla, a belly dance instructor who had been to Egypt many times, “I haven’t heard from the friends I stayed with since the 26th. Their message at that time said that they were fine and were continuing to go to work at the private schools where they teach. Now I have heard that the US government is advising all Americans to leave. Apparently my friends are no longer able to send messages on internet so I have no idea what is happening with them. ‘Rocky’ (meaning Morocco, the famous belly dancer, who has so much experience in Egypt) thinks that many foreigners who have jobs there will stay inspite of the government’s advisory. I think of the heavy police presence in the neighborhood where my friends live (if they are still there?) an area of wealthy ‘expats’. But police discipline is said to have fallen apart.”

     On the 28th of that month, Bev finally was able to get on the internet!    Part of this article consists of notes I took from her e-mails, and part of it consists of excerpts from her e-mails, quoted verbatim.

     When I did get that first e-mail, I was so excited to hear from her as I had not known if she and her husband were all right. She wrote that she had been up since 3:00 AM that day, her anxiety level high. They had not seen or heard any rioting yet in their area, but everybody felt that it was just a matter of time. She didn’t know if she still had a job as the phone and internet access was still cut for much of the city. Their only news source was Al Jazeera’s English channel. She said that streets that were normally busy at 7:00 AM were empty at that time, as no one was going to work.

    She and her other expat friends felt very isolated. Friends would gather at the apartment that she and her husband rented. The electricity was still on, but there was no gas for heating water, or for cooking.

    The next day, Sunday the 29th, she wrote that ten or so expats met at their friend Ann’s flat on the previous evening. Everyone was frightened about the uncertainty. The friends exchanged land-line numbers which were still operating.

    Bev and her husband had always walked around Maadi at night with a feeling of safety. But this time, on the way home from Ann’s, they got to the intersection at the end of their street and encountered a group of men who were armed with large sticks, and not smiling.

    Bev was so scared, but it turned out those men were from the neighborhood!  The “bawab” or doormen, from all of the apartment buildings, who were taking turns protecting both ends of the block! Soon many of the men who lived in that block, including the expats, were taking turns doing guard dutyshifts throughout the night, and Bev’s husband volunteered to take his turn along with the rest.

    Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-reigning president, had always stationed a large number of police in Maadi, to protect the expats living there. Now those same police were needed at Tahrir Square to contain the demonstrations.

    (Later, my friend Leyla found out from our guide Ahmed that men from his block in Giza were also taking turns guarding their block at the intersections on each end of it. In Ahmed’s neighborhood, there had never been any police presence. So they did what they had to do. He also said that everyone in his neighborhood knows eachother so they know who is supposed to be there and who is not.)

     Bev reported in her e-mail that she could regularly hear gunfire and yelling. It must have been terrifying.

     She was incensed that the US government was charging $600 to evacuate US citizens, making evacuees sign a promissory note that they will pay the $600 when they can. “And then you still have to pay your ticket from whatever airport they evacuate you to…such as Cyprus”, she said.

     Hearing what a mess it is at the airport, they (Bev and her husband John) decided to try to wait it out. The school she worked had offered to pay for a bus to take whatever staff from their school that wanted to go. She didn’t know when exactly they were going to go, or if they will leave the country from there, or “just wait out the craziness there”.

    She said what was really bad is with the Metro shut down, so many Cairenes were unable to get to their jobs.

     Mid-afternoon it suddenly hit me that if McCain/Palin had been elected, who knows what action the U.S. might be taking. This thought sent chills down my spine.

   I was worried about Bev because I knew that she and John were depending on the money they were earning in Egypt to pay off the house they are buying in Montana. It was very difficult to get teaching jobs in the US at that time.

   Bev and John did spend the weekend at a Red Sea resort; the private school she works at bussed them there for the weekend. They sent happy photos of a group of expats very glad to get out of Cairo if only for a few days. As they left, the military was moving in to the neighborhood to take control of their neighborhood.