CAIRO — Foreign governments stepped up their warnings about travel to Egypt, with several urging their nationals to evacuate as soon as possible, further fueling uncertainty over where the Arab nation is headed after nearly a week of mass protests.
The fears of foreign tourists mirrored
those of many Egyptians. Dozens with the means to do so rented jets or hopped aboard their own planes in a mad dash that did little to boost confidence in the future of a country that, until a week ago, had been viewed as a pillar of stability in a restive region. Those leaving included businessmen and celebrities.
The American, Swiss, Turkish and Dutch governments issued advisories encouraging nationals already in the country to leave and telling those who planned trips to Egypt to reconsider. A growing number of governments — including China, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Poland — warned against travel to most parts, if not all of Egypt. Arab nations, including Iraq, either sent in jets to take their citizens home, or offered to do so.
“If I had a visa to anywhere, I’d join them. But that’s not going to happen,” said Mohammed Khaled, a 28-year-old Egyptian doctor. “Right now, I’d settle for a gun, but I can’t even find one of those.”
Surging lawlessness on the streets after the much-reviled police essentially melted away has prompted neighbors to form armed patrols. But crowds of men armed with shovels, sticks, clubs, chains, guns and the occasional whips and chains, do little to project an image of stability.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Fox News Sunday that Washington had authorized “voluntary departure, which means that we will assist American citizens to leave Egypt.”
The unrest is sure to affect Egypt’s vital tourism sector, at least in the short-run. Tourism accounts for about 5 to 6 percent of GDP, making it one of the top four sources of foreign revenue for the country.
But the unrest also threatens to unravel an economy that officials had proudly pointed to one of the few to withstand the global financial meltdown.
International oil companies and other Western firms began to weigh evacuating their employees’ families — a move that may be mirrored by international schools catering to those workers.
One such company was oil giant BP PLC. Spokesman Robert Wine said the company, which has operated in Egypt for 40 years, is “working on what we need to do, and whether we need to bring the families out.”
But other businessmen weren’t waiting for formal marching orders.
“We left behind a country with no order or security whatsoever,” Mehmet Buyukocak, who worked in Egypt for six years, told Turkish news channel NTV upon arriving in Istanbul’s airport. “People do as they wish. … The army does not interfere — they are just watching.”
“Even if Mubarak resigns, it will be chaos taking his place,” he said, adding that there are other Turks who said they will remain in Egypt. “I pray God helps them all.”
Even before the images of roving bands of thugs and neighborhood patrols were etched in their minds, tourists were thronging to Cairo’s international airport as Mubarak faced the gravest challenge in his 30-year rule.
Many came without reservations, only to find a growing number of flights canceled, delayed or suspended. National carrier EgyptAir canceled or delayed 25 flights Sunday because of a crew shortage.
Unable to fly out, the passengers’ ranks swelled with the addition of others arriving in Cairo after a 4 p.m. curfew goes into effect.
An airport that was the pride of the government took on the appearance of a marble-floored refugee camp. Airport officials said some travelers who had been there for several days came down with diarrhea, and were treated by doctors at the facility.
A growing number of Arab countries arranged for additional flights on larger jets to evacuate their citizens, as did a smattering of other nations including Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Iraq, which has endured more than seven years of chaos of its own, offered to fly out any of its citizens who wanted to escape the mayhem. “It will be free of charge,” Transportation Ministry spokesman Aqeel Hadi Kawthar told The Associated Press.
Egyptian pop star Amr Diab, whose hits include “Rag’een” or “Returning,” jetted off to London with his family aboard his private plane, said an airport official, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to brief the media.
Several other celebrities and businessmen also left, raising to at least 64 the number of private planes to take off over the past two days.
The impact on the Red Sea resorts, favored by Europeans, was still negligible. Some travel companies said those destinations remained unaffected, even though some governments, such as Poland’s, began expanding their travel advisories to include those areas.
For some prospective visitors, it wasn’t worth the risk.
Tulin Sezer, a 39-year-old math teacher from Berlin, said she and her two friends had just decided to cancel their planned trip to the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.
“It just doesn’t feel right to go on vacation in Egypt, if the people who live there are not happy,” Sezer said. “If people are dying, it is weird to go there as a tourist.”