Through the dirty little window of an escort vehicle, Dr. Steven Myers saw the devastation – incinerated buildings, rioters, roadblocks. Traffic on the way to the airport in Cairo was gridlocked, blocked by cars, people and sand-colored Egyptian tanks. Military checkpoints demanded passports and photo IDs.
“We ended up in the middle of…probably 200 Egyptian Abrams tanks and personnel carriers,” said Myers, a professor of toxicology and pharmacology at the University of Louisville. “We passed burning cars and trucks and a lot of protesters on the way in.”
Myers, who had come to Egypt on Jan. 20 to research air pollution, had unwittingly found himself in the middle of what had become a very dangerous conflict.
On Jan. 26, several days before Myers’ escort vehicle made its way into Cairo, Egyptian protesters took to the streets. Demanding an end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year presidency, protesters have filled Tahrir Square in Cairo ever since.
“They want the president to leave immediately and without delay,” said Dr. Ahmed Desoky, an Egyptian-American professor in the J.B. Speed School of Engineering. “They won’t accept anything less and they won’t stop until they get it.
While Mubarak has since announced that he will not run for re-election at the end of his term in September, the protests continue.
The United Nations reported that over 2,400 Americans contacted the United States embassy in Egypt, fearing that the protests might turn violent and seeking evacuation. However, the evacuation process was chaotic and slow
“The difficulties of getting a flight out were a little bit troubling,” said Myers. “There are normally about 200 flights per day leaving the airport in Cairo. On some days [during the protests] there were only around 20 flights getting out.”
Many Americans had no choice but to wait for word that a flight had become available.
In the interim, Myers, who had been in Fayoum, Egypt conducting his research, was under constant security watch near the campus of Fayoum University.
“We were essentially on lockdown at the hotel,” said Myers. “When I had to go to the hospital for lectures or anything, I had to have an armed escort. We were told we couldn’t leave the campus of Fayoum University.”
Myers and many others in Egypt would soon discover that the Egyptian government had cut off Internet and phone access to much of the country.
“All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas,” reads a statement by mobile provider Vodafone, a British company with over 28 million users in Egypt.
The Egyptian government said this decision was made as part of an effort to limit communication between leaders within the protests. However, the restricted phone and Internet access has presented a problem for foreign nationals seeking evacuation.
“I called the State Department trying to figure out what to do and where was the safest place to go,” said Myers. “They told me they’d keep in contact via e-mail, but e-mail and Internet were down.”
By Tuesday, Feb. 1, Myers had still not secured a place among other evacuees leaving Egypt. By Feb. 2, the protests had taken a turn for the worse – erupting into sudden violence.
Supporters of Mubarak flooded Tahrir Square, bringing weapons and inciting violence among the anti-Mubarak protesters there.
“They came with an agenda of violence,” said Desoky. “They came in on horseback and brought whips and sticks and knives.”
Egyptian military representatives encouraged both sides to stand down.
“You have started out to express your demands,” said Ismail Etman, an Egyptian military spokesman, in a televised address. “And you are the ones capable of returning normal life to Egypt.”
Even so, estimates of total arrests, injuries and casualties soared, although no reliable source has released specific numbers. At this point, Myers was beginning to worry.
“I wasn’t really worried until about then,” said Myers. “That’s when we started to see the violence that was going on.”
Egyptian police and military personnel made efforts to control the violent outburst.
“Since the street protests erupted, police have confronted protestors with rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, water cannons and batons,” said Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, in a UN press release.
Mirroring global concerns, U.S. President Barack Obama has asked that Egyptian authorities refrain from taking any undue force against peaceful protesters.
“The people of Egypt have rights that are universal,” said Obama in a televised address. “The United States will stand up for them everywhere.”
By this time, world newscasts reported wide-spread looting and rioting, as well as several casualties throughout Egypt. According to Myers, panic among evacuees still left in the country had caused confusion at the Cairo airport.
With most flights out of Cairo grounded, the airport terminal had become flooded with foreign nationals. According to Myers, no food or water was available and evacuees could be waiting for hours or even days.
“All craziness broke loose at the airport,” said Myers. “We were just very lucky to be in the right place at the right time and get out of the country.”
According to Myers, evacuees on the planes flying out of Cairo were largely unaware of where they would land. Myers’ flight landed in Cologne, Germany. He arrived back in the U.S. after midnight on Feb. 3.
While he admitted that he will wait until the political climate in Egypt has stabilized, Myers hopes to continue his research in the country as early as the fall of 2011.
“The research we’ve been doing on environmental pollution and health effects is very important,” said Myers. “We’ve put a lot of miles into getting this study going and we’re not going to stop that.”
For the time being, Myers’ concerns are with the people still in Egypt.
“I have friends there,” said Myers. “TV only gives you a small snippet of what’s going on. Unless you’ve been out there in that environment – seen the destruction – television doesn’t do it justice.”