Published January 31, 2011
CAIRO -- Cairo's international airport was a scene of chaos and confusion Monday as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest in Egypt and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
Nerves frayed, shouting matches erupted and some passengers even had a fistfight as thousands crammed into Cairo airport's new Terminal 3 seeking a flight home. The airport's departures board stopped announcing flight times in an attempt to reduce tensions -- but the plan backfired, fueling passengers' anger.
Making matters worse, check-in counters were poorly staffed because many EgyptAir employees had been unable to get to work due to a 3 p.m.-to-8 a.m. curfew and traffic breakdowns across the Egyptian capital.
"It's an absolute zoo, what a mess," said Justine Khanzadian, 23, a graduate student from the American University of Cairo. "I decided to leave because of the protests, the government here is just not stable enough to stay."
A U.S. military plane landed at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus on ferrying 42 U.S. Embassy officials and their dependents from Egypt. The U.S. Embassy in Nicosia said at least one more plane was expected Monday with about 180 people. U.S. officials have said it will take several flights over the coming days to fly out the thousands of Americans who want to leave Egypt.
In Cairo, EgyptAir resumed its flights Monday morning after a roughly 14-hour break because of the curfew and its inability to field enough crew. Over 20 hours, only 26 of about 126 EgyptAir flights operated, airport officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
By midday, an announcement filtered through the crowd instructing groups of Danish, German, Chinese, British and Canadian passengers that their governments had sent planes to evacuate them -- causing a stampede to the gates.
The officials said many countries were working to evacuate their citizens, with Turkey sending four flights, Israel and Russia sending two planes each and the Czech Republic one. They said those additional flights had helped ease the airport's restless crowds but the gains were short-lived as other foreigners and Egyptians poured in.
Greek petroleum employee Markos Loukogiannakis, who arrived in Athens on a flight carrying 181 passengers including 65 U.S. citizens, said confusion reigned at Cairo airport and travelers had to negotiate a string of checkpoints to even get there.
"In a 22-kilometer (14-mile) route from our suburb to the airport we had to get through 19 checkpoints, including nine manned by civilians," he said. "There were lots of people gathering at the airport and it was very difficult to get in."
He said security had deteriorated sharply over the past three days in Cairo after police withdrew from the streets.
"There was a wave of attacks by criminal elements who engaged in burglaries and wrecked shops and banks. There was a lot of shooting and residents took up the burden of protecting their property," he said.
In a geopolitical shift, even Iraq decided it would evacuate its citizens, sending three planes to Egypt -- including the prime minister's plane -- to bring home for free all those who wish to return. Thousands of Iraqis had once fled to Egypt to escape the violence in their own country.
About 800 Iraqis had left Cairo by Monday afternoon, said Capt. Mohammed al-Moussawi, a crew member for the prime minister's office. He said the flights would continue until all those who wished to return had done so.
Nearly 320 Indian nationals were evacuated from Cairo to Mumbai on board a special Air India flight and another 275 expected to reach Mumbai later in the day. An Azerbaijan flight carrying 80 adults, 23 children and the body of an Azeri Embassy accountant killed in the unrest arrived in Baku.
China sent two planes and was sending two more charter flights Tuesday to help pick up an estimated 500 Chinese stranded in Cairo. It issued a warning urging citizens not travel to Egypt had embassy personnel hand out food and water to Chinese passengers at the airport.
That echoed earlier warnings from Britain, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Czech Republic, which all advised against all nonessential travel to Egypt. Many European tour companies canceled trips to the country until Feb. 23, others left the cancellations open until further notice.
One big question was what to do with the tens of thousands of tourists in other parts of Egypt. Tour operators say they will fly home all their customers this week when their holidays end, or on extra flights, stressing there has not been any unrest in Red Sea resort cities like Hurghada or Sharm el-Sheik.
Britain estimated there were around 30,000 U.K. tourists and long-term residents in Egypt, but said Monday it has no plans to evacuate British citizens. Foreign Secretary William Hague has advised against all but essential travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez.
Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki, however, said food shortages were starting to be felt at Egyptian resorts and some restaurants were refusing to serve foreigners.
He said the Polish airline LOT would fly to Cairo on Tuesday to bring back those hoping to return but added there was no immediate need for an evacuation.
Indonesia was sending a plane to Cairo to start evacuating some 6,150 Indonesian citizens -- mostly students and workers -- and SAS Denmark said it would fly home some 60 Danes stranded at Cairo airport.
The Danish company shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S chartered a plane to pick up relatives of its Danish employees in Egypt, the Danish Embassy said. The company itself said there were no terminal operations in Egypt on Monday and the Maersk Line, Safmarine and Damco offices were closed.
Air France canceled its daily flight from Paris to Cairo on Monday and planned to increase its capacity Tuesday by an extra 200 seats to help bring passengers back to France.
Portugal sent a C-130 military transport plane to evacuate its citizens and Greece was sending three C-130 military transport planes to Alexandria on Tuesday for evacuations.