Egyptian visit called ‘unnerving’

Bert Heeringa and Elizabeth Witthoeft enjoyed a visit to Egypt — when they weren’t concerned about the civil unrest. Photo Submitted -
Bert Heeringa and Elizabeth Witthoeft enjoyed a visit to Egypt — when they weren’t concerned about the civil unrest. Photo Submitted
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Timing is everything, as discovered by a Courtenay couple back from a recent visit to Egypt.

Forget the pyramids. The sight of armed guards, tanks and looters awaited Elizabeth Witthoeft and Bert Heeringa, who were visiting Witthoeft’s daughter and son-in-law in Cairo, where protesters have been trying to oust Hosni Mubarak from the presidency.

The couple had been forewarned about the conflict, which has been centred at Tahrir Square.

“We knew that there had been some protests, but they didn’t seem too bad,” said Heeringa, who owns the Canadian Tire in Courtenay. “The only thing we saw of tangible evidence was the army had some, I assume they were potential looters, tied up face down on the dirt at one of the checkpoints.”

“That was a bit of an unnerving experience,” Witthoeft said, recalling their driver, who broke down in tears when he saw the people held at gunpoint.

The situation reached a point where police vacated the streets and left the army to restore control.

“It seemed civilian groups were creating their own checkpoints,” Heeringa said. “You just have no idea where any of that conversation is going.”

The couple managed to flee the country in a private jet. En route to the airport in Cairo, tanks were lined up at most of the city’s intersections.

“It’s not too often you get to look down the barrel of a tank gun,” Witthoeft said. “The social unrest, it was so pivotal, it just turned on a dime. Sometimes within hours an area you felt safe in was no longer an area you’d want to walk about in...Luckily we got out the day before travel to the airport got even more complicated. The following day we heard many stories where people had been stopped and demanded huge amounts of cash and all their jewelry just to pass to the airport.”

After their departure, Witthoeft heard passengers at Cairo’s main airport were stuck without food, water or services.

“It’s really quite a different world to start with. And this added into the works — it was quite a unique experience,” said Witthoeft, whose son-in-law works as a private pilot for a family in Cairo.

Although they did not stay in the city centre, the couple knew something was wrong when they found themselves in a mass exodus of highway traffic.

“It’s mayhem at the best of times,” Witthoeft said. “All the traffic was coming in the wrong direction on the other side of the street.”

Of bigger concern was the lack of cell phone service and Internet access, which caused difficulties when making travel plans or calling home.

The couple had a driver at their disposal, but the man behind the wheel said it was not safe to visit the pyramids or marketplaces close to the square.

While their safety was never in jeopardy, they heard enough gunshots to want to stay inside.

“The situation was very volatile and was changing pretty rapidly,” Heeringa said. “The people who were leaving were unsure where it was going.”

Witthoeft had been concerned about her daughter Natalie and son-in-law Adam, who live in a condominium area about 20 minutes from the downtown square.

As the situation worsened after the couple flew out of Cairo, Witthoeft said roaming gangs and mobs were moving towards the airport and the presidential palace, which is close to her daughter’s home. A bonfire had been set up to guard the area around the condo, which has been featured in reports of looting since they left.

Natalie and Adam are now in the Comox Valley for the time being.

Despite the chaos in Cairo, Witthoeft said the Egyptians she encountered were friendly, supportive and protective.

“It’s an interesting thing,” Heeringa said. “We did talk to some of the local people. Although they had expected some sort of removal, or attempt to remove, the current president, the concern was once he’s gone, what sort of organized opposition can fill the void of managing the country. I think that’s where a lot of the concern still lies. Does it become a military regime again, or is there an actual organized opposition that can take over control?

“It does make you very aware of just how fortunate we are to live in Canada.”

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