Cairo Timeline: From Pyramids to Protests

As a former vice president at CNN, Judith Bronstein Milestone ’66 is used to thinking fast in crisis situations. Those skills were put to the test for three days last month when she served as the Alumnae Association representative on a Smith Travel trip to Egypt that very quickly turned into something more than a vacation as protesters against President Hosni Mubarak fill the streets of Cairo, just outside the travel group’s hotel. Here Milestone provides a timeline of what she saw.

Wednesday night, January 26: We leave JFK for Cairo in the middle of a snowstorm. We’re on one of the last planes out.

Thursday, January 27: After landing in Cairo and negotiating the shiny new airport, we meet our beautiful guide, Nora, and ride through the peaceful Cairo streets to the elegant Semiramis Hotel near Tahrir Square. In the lobby, I run into Agnes Stephenson (Stevie) Coppin ’51, a Smith friend from previous Smith trip. Smithies are everywhere! Later, Stevie brings Grolsch beer to our group’s organizational meeting. Then there is a get-acquainted dinner of traditional Egyptian fare at the Blue Nile across the river. I sleep like a baby after 17 hours of flying.

Friday, January 28: Nora leads a morning visit to the Giza Pyramids. Afternoon sightseeing is cancelled in anticipation of a protest march that is planned following Friday prayers. My third time in Egypt and still the pyramids are amazing—the engineering, the longevity, the theological concept. We eat a hurried but charming lunch at the Arcadia in Giza to leave in time. Our bus driver zooms across nearly empty Cairo streets back to the hotel. Standing in the lobby, I watch demonstrators trying to cross the bridge against riot police armed with shields pushing them back. Looks like tug-of-war. There are water cannons, tear gas, and dumdum bullets exploding. The manager clears the hotel lobby for safety. I retreat to the open fourth-floor pool area to watch. The hotel staff serves mango and guava juice to guests watching the struggle. Later from my room, I see the demonstrators break through to the square. After sundown, the noise rises: chanting, people running, tear gas blasts, sirens, shooting. I try to call my husband, but my international cell phone doesn’t work. There is no Internet service. Surprisingly, my hotel land line works and I get through. Others come to my room to phone home. I head off to our planned cocktail party for local alumnae, but hotel security calls it off. Some return to their rooms while others group to ease anxieties. Taking the elevator, we see hotel staff with laundry hampers packed with bottled water heading out to the demonstrators. Tear gas creeps into the hotel through a broken window in the lobby. Two hours later, Nora arranges a dinner in the hotel’s Lebanese restaurant, where wine raises our spirits. Meanwhile, the police depart the square and tanks roll in. Back in my room, I simultaneously watch CNN/TV and the square through my window. Fires burn close by. There are reports of looting. I can hear the sounds of shooting. An uprising in stereo! I’m awake until 4 a.m., when it gets eerily quiet.

Saturday, January 29: After breakfast, I chat with a physician from Baghdad who claims this is worse than Iraq. Demonstrators begin arriving for another day. My shopping trip for souvenirs is thwarted. Nora meets with us to discuss options. Plan A: a re-route to Aswan. Plan B: go home. Everyone wants to go home. We decide not to switch hotels. Nora believes the Semiramis is more secure. We spend the day getting ready to leave. I worry about a risky bus ride to airport. Although the plan is for security to accompany us, Nora does not think they will show. I dress for a farewell dinner as if this were the end of an ordinary vacation. We take an official trip photo. Since the food supply is running short, dinner is a rerun of lunch. After dinner, Nora recounts her afternoon in the square. She is visibly shaken at seeing someone killed. The square quiets around 1 a.m., but I hear the noises of someone running in the hallway outside my room, which makes it impossible for me to sleep. So I flip channels among CNN, BBC, and Jazeera. For a moment, I imagine I am in a movie: The Year of Living Dangerously? Missing? At 3 a.m., Nora calls me to say that we can’t leave at 6 a.m. as planned. We must wait until 8 a.m. after the curfew lifts. I worry that we’ll miss the plane. Most other airlines are not flying. My husband calls five minutes later. He tells me that the airport is chaotic. There are mobs of people and little food, so we plan to take extra food with us.

Sunday, January 30: I go to Nora’s room at 5 a.m. to call everyone about the trip to the airport. Nora is losing her voice. While we eat, Nora learns that the army will not allow a bus for the ride to the airport, just a group of cabs, which for us means no security at all. Waiting in the hotel lobby, we are approached by an ABC reporter, but I tell her no photos. We want to stay under the radar. Nora commandeers the cabs. They lash the luggage to their roofs and begin a convoy to the airport. Nora hangs out the window to make sure all the cabs stay together. On the streets, we see burned-out army personnel carriers, rocks everywhere, roadblocks, signs of fires, and chaotic traffic. Yet, we are not frightened, just worried about making the plane. En route, we get a reprieve; Nora finds out the plane will be delayed. At the airport, Nora must leave, and the expediters are overwhelmed and not much help, so we stand in an amorphous line for hours. Eventually, we’re able to check in and get to our gate, where security finds the can of Grolsch beer in my purse and makes me drink it. The plane takes off at 3 p.m. Cairo time, five hours late. We’re lucky to be on any plane at all as the airport is filled with stranded travelers. We touch down twelve hours later at JFK. Nine of us stay over near JFK, talking until midnight. A Smith professor forwards us brochures about the symptoms of PTSD!

Monday, January 31: I catch an early flight to LAX. Home. And my husband’s hug never felt so good.