POSTED: 9:43 a.m. HST, Jan 30, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 1:34 p.m. HST, Jan 30, 2011
CAIRO — Foreign governments stepped up their warnings Sunday about travel to Egypt, with several urging their citizens to evacuate as soon as possible amid 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 long viewed as a pillar of stability in a restive region. Those leaving included businessmen and celebrities.
The United States, Canada, Switzerland, Turkey and the Netherlands issued advisories encouraging nationals already in Egypt to leave and telling those who planned trips there to reconsider. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo said it was making arrangements to transport Americans who want to leave to "safehaven locations in Europe." Flights would begin Monday.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Janice Jacobs said it will take several flights in the coming days to accommodate all Americans who want to leave.
Jacobs, who is in charge of consular affairs, said the U.S. may also send planes to other cities in Egypt, such as Luxor, if there are a number of Americans stranded there. Americans taking the charter will be billed for the flight and must make their own travel arrangements home from Europe.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said its charter flights will begin as early as Monday to fly Canadians who wish to leave to locations in Europe.
A growing number of countries — including China, Australia, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Poland — warned against travel to most, if not all, of Egypt. Arab nations, including Iraq, either sent in jets 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 prompted neighbors to form armed patrols. But crowds of men armed with shovels, sticks, clubs, chains, guns and even whips did little to project an image of stability.
Compounding the problem was a continued Internet outage after the government cut off service Friday to undercut protesters' ability to organize demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak.
U.S. Embassy officials said they were unable to send text message alerts — which have been blocked nationwide since late Thursday — complicating efforts to distribute advisories.
The unrest is sure to affect Egypt's vital tourism sector, at least in the short-run. Tourism accounts for about 5 percent to 6 percent of GDP, making it one of the top four sources of foreign revenue.
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.
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."
Others weren't waiting for formal 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. "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 lawlessness, tourists were thronging to Cairo's 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 crew shortages.
The crowds swelled as passengers landed in Cairo after a 4 p.m. curfew began.
The airport 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.
A growing number of Arab countries arranged for additional flights on larger jets to evacuate their citizens, as did a few other nations, including Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Iraq, which has endured more than seven years of its own chaos, offered to fly out any of its citizens who wanted to go. "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 in 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, expanded 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 trip to the resort 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."
Associated Press writers Gregory Katz in London, Adam Schreck in Dubai, Anita Chang in Beijing, Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, Christopher Torchia in Cairo, Kirstin Grieshaber in Berlin, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and Ceren Kumova in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.