On January 26, former Smith College President Mary Maples Dunn joined twenty-four alumnae, their spouses, and friends on a Smith Travel trip to Egypt. They arrived in Cairo just as the country erupted and demonstrators against President Hosni Mubarak filled the capital city. For two tense days, Smith Travel and the tour company, Odysseys Unlimited, worked the phones to get the group out of Egypt. Now safely home in Philadelphia, Dunn recounts what she saw.
Our hotel overlooked Tahrir Square, and we had a room on the twenty-seventh floor. On the other side of the hotel was the Nile River and a view of the bridge where the fiercest battle between demonstrators and police eventually took place. So we could see it all.
We arrived mid-afternoon on Thursday, January 27, and the tour group was immediately advised to stay in the hotel. At a meeting at 5 that afternoon, we were given a revised tour schedule. The demonstration was to begin after the Friday prayer at 1:30, so we would go early the next morning to Giza to see the great Pyramids and the Sphinx, which we did. Words can’t describe the awe we felt in seeing these monumental landmarks, and the coming political fight seemed very distant indeed. After an early lunch, our bus raced back to the hotel, and as we got closer we began to see tight groups of police in full riot dress stationed strategically around the center of the city. We got safely back to find the hotel full of armed security officers, and we were told to go to our rooms. Outside, the square was quiet and empty because the police had it closed off. We eventually went to a fourth-floor terrace, a beautiful spot, where we watched the police and the demonstrators battle—one side with rocks, the other with water cannons (we had never seen one—a big square sort of truck full of water with a cannon in front that shoots streams of water with great pressure), tear gas, rubber bullets. The police were slowly advancing, although the demonstrators would pulse forward and then retreat, but the police were definitely winning; soon the demonstrators were pushed to the other side of the Nile. For us, this was surreal. There we were on an elegant terrace, with waiters rushing about with mango and guava juice and water, and a crowd watching this pitched battle, mostly silently.
Soon the demonstrators had pushed through the police lines and were mobbing the square. A fire broke out in a building nearby—later identified as the National Party Headquarters—and black smoke billowed out. The police continued to throw tear gas canisters, and the sound of gunfire was almost constant. Sometimes they shot live ammunition; you could tell by the sound. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the balcony, moving inside once tear gas drifted our way. In our room, we watched television, which was covering Cairo nonstop. We certainly had wandered into a war.
That Friday evening, there was a cocktail party at our hotel scheduled for local Smith alumnae. Needless to say, no one showed up, but we did and were told to go immediately back to our rooms. We returned to our post on the balcony. All the lights on the ground and second floor were out, to discourage any illegal entry, but one rock connected with a window, and a wave of tear gas came in the first floor. Several people in our crowd were caught in it. By 9 p.m. things had quieted down, although the sound of gunfire went on for a while and fires continued to burn in the square.
Plans for us were made and remade, but ultimately it was decided we should stay in the hotel, which seemed safer than other places because the army was such a presence, protecting the Egyptian Museum and the nearby American and British embassies.
By 11 a.m. on Saturday, the crowd in the square was swelling and was immense by early that afternoon. People were marching in groups (we think by neighborhood, but learn later they were marching by mosque). At that point, the police had disappeared completely; however, military were everywhere. Unlike the police, they were not aggressive. (In our opinion, the police have a lot to answer for because of the brutal aggression with which they tried to halt the demonstrations.) People were sitting on the tanks and troop carriers, and in one instance we learned a troop carrier was used as a hearse for a man killed in the action behind the square. Throughout the day, the sound of gunfire hung in the air and fires burned several blocks behind the square.
We had a meal on Saturday evening on the fourth-floor terrace and were told that our bus would pick us up at 6:30 the next morning to go to the airport. By some miracle, we had tickets on the 10:20 Egypt Air flight to JFK. That meant we had to get up at 5 a.m. and put our bags out by 5:15.
But as Sunday morning arrived we learned that plans had changed again. The military wouldn’t let us leave until after the curfew ended at 8 a.m. On top of that, the bus couldn’t get to the hotel, so we were scheduled to go in a fleet of cabs. Which we did, with our luggage tied precariously on top. We drove past the burned-out party headquarters. There was rubble on the streets and traffic was heavy. There were military barriers along the way. It took an hour and twenty minutes to make what is usually a twenty-minute drive.
The airport was chaotic, with thousands of people desperately trying to get out of the country. We soon learned that our flight wasn’t leaving until 2 p.m., so a tour guide took us to the place where we were to stand in line to get boarding passes. We stood and stood, surrounded by a mob of people, not moving for hours. Finally, we got boarding passes, went through passport control, and then to the gate, where we stood in line once more for security, which was pretty thorough. We took off at 3 p.m. and landed at JFK on Tuesday without incident, but tired after more than twenty-four hours without sleep.
A word about the Smith group. Never have you met twenty-four people with so much aplomb! Everyone was calm and controlled and interested in the experience. We were all glad to get on that plane, of course, but we expect there were many in addition to us who half wished they could stay on for a few more days to see how things turn out. The Smith representative on the trip was Judith Bronstein Milestone ’66, a former senior vice president with CNN! As someone who knew about world crises, she contributed greatly to our calm. Our tour leader was a beautiful Egyptian woman, Nora Hussein, and she and Judy did heroic work in making and remaking plans, always in contact with Smith Travel and with Odysseys Unlimited, the terrific professional group being used by Smith.
And so we witnessed history in the making. It was an unusual experience, and an amazing opportunity. We are glad to be at home, but are feeling the greatest sympathy for the Egyptians, and maybe a little optimistic about their chances for a better regime and a reduction in the misery so many of them experience every day.