Americans in Egypt Decide: Stay or Go?

Charlotte Naugle, an English teacher who has lived in Cairo for six years, waits for her flight.
CBS

CAIRO - Cairo airport is a schizophrenic place these days - the arrival halls are deserted. There were about 30 people on our flight in - at the immigration desk, a polite official said we would have to pay for our visas on exit "because there are no other staff here to take your money now."

But upstairs at the departure terminals it is chaotic, with crowds of anxious people trying to get tickets on flights that might not be going to the destination they want and then get cancelled anyway. Because of the 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew here, anyone who cannot get on a flight by 5 p.m. has to stay at an airport hotel - or sleep on the terminal floor. Bleary-eyed men, women and children lie sprawled over luggage, seek information from officials who know less than they do, and ask anxiously about news from the city they left behind in panic.

Foreign embassies have mobilized to get their nationals out - we have seen diplomats from the U.S., Canada, Singapore and Switzerland waving their national flags and looking for citizens who need help. The U.S. is chartering flights that are heading to Istanbul, Cyprus, Athens and Frankfurt - already they have evacuated 2,000 Americans, along with many other third-country nationals, who couldn't get seats on commercial flights.

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In almost surreal scenes, diplomats from the embassy here wade through the crowds in the terminals, shouting on bullhorns "Any Americans here?

Any Americans here?" The U.S. Embassy has about 50 people at the airport working the crowds - they have flown in diplomats from embassies across the Middle East and from as far away as Bangladesh and even from D.C. to help the effort.

Adam Lenert, the deputy press attache at the Cairo embassy, says that as they troll through the airport with the U.S. flag and their bullhorns and pick up distraught American travelers, "there is a lot of relief to see American embassy officials there who are processing them." He says they are not ordering private American citizens to leave - but they have put out a warden's message to tell people that as far as the embassy is concerned, all non-essential diplomats have been told to leave, and they are "encouraging" private Americans to decide what they want to do.

Many of the tourists who had been in Egypt when the protests started left earlier this week - now we are finding that it is Americans who are long-term residents of Cairo who are leaving. , is almost in tears when we talk to her shortly before she boards a flight for Frankfurt. "I am saddened, my heart is just broken by what I have seen." She pauses to recollect herself, and says that it is largely because of her daughters who worry about her that she is leaving. "I am going back to the States for a while - I want to come back, I have left an apartment full of everything, my books, my life is here."

But today life in Cairo, even for those many Americans who have come to love Egypt, has become too dangerous - and so, often reluctantly, and with no small amount of guilt, they get on the evacuation flights that they can take, but that are not open to their Egyptian friends.

  • Terry McCarthy

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