x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Families caught up in Egypt protests

Friends and family in the UAE are anxious for latest news from protests.

Friends and family in the UAE are anxious for the latest news from protests, as loved ones fend off looters and food shortages loom.
Friends and family in the UAE are anxious for the latest news from protests, as loved ones fend off looters and food shortages loom.

When a group of thugs raided a home in Masr al Gedida in northern Cairo, Ahmed Elhamy was a part of the neighbourhood watch that arrested some of the looters.

"People were focused on the baltageya," said Mr Elhamy, using the common slang word for thugs. "Everyone who got arrested was taken to the army patrols, and we arrested four or five."

An engineering graduate from the American University of Sharjah, Mr Elhamy has been in Egypt since October.

While he recounted his story, Egyptian residents in the UAE spoke of their anxiety for families, many of whom have banded together to protect their neighbourhoods from looters. Many families say they will soon face food shortages.

Despite a clampdown on communications Rachel McArthur, 27, of Abu Dhabi, who is half-Egyptian, said she was in touch with relatives and friends in Cairo and Alexandria by landline on the "Friday of anger".

"On Thursday night they sent BlackBerry messages saying the phones and internet would be cut off," she said. "I can't believe that in 2011 a country would cut off the internet."

Some of Ms McArthur's relatives took part in protests in nearby districts, while friends took part in demonstrations in central Cairo.

She said the water supply to parts of Alexandria had been vandalised by thugs, who also looted several of the city's neighbourhoods. Her relatives, in response, took part in a citizens' neighbourhood watch.

Ms McArthur said people were running out of money and supplies because few people expected the protests to balloon this quickly. Her cousin, who has a one-month old daughter, is about to run out of diapers, with malls sacked or looted.

She said she was excited by the prospect of change, but worries for her family. "We knew no president other than Hosni Mubarak, and people have a sense of excitement that change might happen," she said. "Those who are really scared are our parents and our grandparents, they're scared for everyone. They worked all their lives and their homes are being trashed."

Iman al Sallal, a 23-year-old Yemeni-Egyptian-American residing in Al Ain, said she calls her cousins in Cairo every two hours. "When the strikes first started I was more concerned about the country," she said. "But on Friday, the day of rage, we started to get worried after seeing what was on TV and all the dead bodies ... So we called our family. But the phones weren't working. Then the home phones did and hearing their voices left us reassured."

But on Saturday, her family was threatened by looters demanding that they leave their homes. "They were standing under the buildings with knives, we can't leave," Ms al Sallal's cousin told her, crying.

Omar Sami, 22, an Egyptian project engineer in Abu Dhabi, said his fiancée left for Egypt on Friday, arriving in the capital just after prayers before flying out to Hurghada.

She has little prospect of returning to the UAE anytime soon because it is difficult now to catch a flight.

"Everyone is terrified of the thugs of the night," he said. "My aunt called the police and asked them to come and guard them and they said 'Let the army help you'," he said.

At another family home, in Banha, looters burnt the building of an elderly restaurant owner loved by many. "That's a guy who has nothing to do with politics and everybody loves him, but they burnt his restaurants," said Mr Sami.

AEH, a 41-year-old Egyptian residing in Abu Dhabi, said he was also checking in regularly with family. "My brother is a high-rank police officer in Alexandria," AEH said. "He resigned when the protests started."

AEH's brother, Abo Kareem, said his former colleagues all wanted Mr Mubarak to leave, but could only follow orders for now.

"They don't want to do what they are doing, but they are just following orders. You have to keep in mind that these are people with barely a school degree," he said.

He too is in a neighbourhood watch. "All the men, and some college boys, stand guard under the building. I was here until 6am. My doctor neighbour came down with a small kitchen knife with him.

"Police did let out criminals, I know that for sure. They are all just playing political games," he added.

Local supermarkets, he said, were running low on food. "Even all the malls are closed. There is nowhere for us to get food now," he said.

His wife said the mobile phone network Vodafone was sending regular messages of encouragement to its users in Egypt not to give up.

"When I saw the protesters pass by, I was filled with pride," she said.