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Egyptians return to unfamiliar homeland

The plane was nearly empty when it took off en route to Cairo. Most people have gone in the other direction, escaping the chaos surrounding mass protests in Egypt.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The plane was nearly empty when it took off en route to Cairo. Most people have gone in the other direction, escaping the chaos surrounding mass protests demanding President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.

Usama Ibrahim, a 55-year-old Egyptian who has lived in Montreal for about a quarter of a century, turned around in his seat and shook his head at all the empty rows.

He couldn't wait to get back after spending most of the last two weeks watching TV in amazement as mass protests demanding Mubarak's ouster erupted into deadly fighting and looting in his native country.

"My wife was pushing me to go just to calm down," he said Saturday during the hourlong flight from Amman, Jordan, to Cairo.

Ibrahim was one of about 25 tense-looking passengers on the normally packed Royal Jordanian flight — a mix of Egyptians, Western journalists and others. RJ 503 also carried passengers from an earlier flight that had been canceled, but it was still less than one-third full.

Ibrahim, a hotel cashier, said his 21-year-old daughter was born in Montreal but has been studying in Cairo, and his 87-year-old father was visiting his brother in the Egyptian capital when the unrest broke out on Jan. 25.

He thought the Mubarak regime would put down the protests within days — as has happened in the past — but grew increasingly fearful as the uprising persisted and Mubarak dug in his heels.

"I have to go there to see the streets, and after we'll see," he said. "If it becomes worse, I will leave right away — with my father and daughter, and maybe my brother and all his family will come back to Montreal."

Flights canceled
It was not easy to book a ticket since many airlines have canceled flights to Cairo. At least 160,000 foreigners have fled Egypt as violence overshadowed the protests — a major blow to the vital tourism industry. Foreign governments sent in dozens of charter flights to evacuate their nationals. Others flew out on commercial flights.

One Egyptian man who works in Amman sat quietly with his wife and son. They spoke about the situation but were too afraid to identify themselves.

"I want to see it with my own eyes ... what has happened to our Egypt," the woman said, bursting into tears as she worried that chaos was ruining the economy and Egypt's status as a regional and cultural powerhouse. "It is good they brought change, but we can say now, 'That's enough.'"

Discussions on the plane mirrored the debate on the ground, with Egyptians divided over whether Mubarak should step down immediately or serve out the remainder of his term so he can oversee a peaceful transition ahead of September elections.

Promise of reforms
Ahmed Mohyeldin, a 31-year-old air-conditioner salesman living in Bradner, Ohio, was flying back on a previously scheduled trip to see his parents in Cairo. He welcomed Mubarak's promise of far-reaching reforms and his televised promise not to seek re-election as many had feared he would.

"He already came on TV and said he would change everything," Mohyeldin said. "So just calm down and give him a chance over the next six months."

Ibrahim interrupted him as the plane began to descend with just 90 minutes left before a 7 p.m. curfew.

"But we don't believe him," he said. "Why would he change it now when he didn't before? He's had 30 years."