Watching Egypt Erupt

By Beacon Staff

To say that Bob Phelps’ recent visit to Egypt didn’t turn out how he planned would be something of an understatement. Arriving in Cairo Jan. 24 with his wife Alita, the protests were just beginning to erupt. And though they failed to see many of the nation’s major archaeological landmarks, the two Whitefish residents bore witness to the beginnings of a massive protest – one that would eventually lead to the president’s ouster and which is now spreading across the Middle East.

“We made a trip to Egypt and never saw the pyramids, never saw the sphinx, because it was too dangerous,” Phelps, a retired Methodist pastor, said. “But it was clear to us that the young adults that were in (Egyptian cities) Aswan and Luxor were very much caught up in this revolutionary hope of building a new nation.”

“I’m no expert on Egypt; I’m just another American tourist,” he added. “My wife and I experienced something that opened our eyes and that the whole world is now watching.”

The Phelps left Billings Jan. 17 for a weeklong trip to Israel and Palestine as part of a Christian travel program known as Educational Opportunities (EO). Though the first leg of the trip was pleasant, as they boarded a bus to head south through the Sinai Peninsula, the beginnings of the uprising in Egypt were commencing.

On Jan. 25, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets calling for an end to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Phelps said their hotel was far enough from the center of Cairo to be mostly unaffected by the demonstrations. The next morning they left early for a short flight south to Aswan, where they planned to float along the Nile River on a cruise ship, stopping off at cities along the way for three days to explore archaeological sites.

But as the demonstrations spread from Cairo, and they watched them develop along the shores of the Nile, Phelps and his wife realized they would not be stepping off the boat to see the sites. In Luxor, where 4,000-5,000-year-old archaeological exhibits are on display, they witnessed a tank sitting in the main square, the windows of a government building blasted out and police following demonstrators.

Though scared at times, Phelps said they never felt physically threatened.

“Even so, we didn’t feel that anybody was really interested in us,” Phelps said. “They were demonstrating for their rights as citizens of Egypt.”

And Phelps said the Egyptians they met and conversed with about the protests were impressive: young, intelligent and able to speak articulately in English about the issues at hand. Those who were not in Cairo said they wished they could be there to participate in the demonstrations.

“We’re very much identified with the cause that these folks are fighting for,” Phelps said last week, prior to Mubarak stepping down. “They have reasons to be demonstrating.”

Other tourists, however, did encounter hostility. A separate group from Phelps that didn’t take the Nile cruise attempted to drive to Alexandria from Cairo, but a group blocked the bus, busting some of its windows. The passengers on board had to crouch below the windows to make the bus look empty, and some passengers suffered minor cuts from objects thrown through the windows. It’s unclear whether the group was pro-Mubarak or composed of protesters.

The tourists spent the next three days confined in their hotel, watching CNN.

Upon returning to Cairo, Phelps and Alita managed to get on a flight to Rome on Egypt Air, thanks to fast arrangements made by EO’s organizers.

“We knew enough to heed the warnings of the EO personnel,” he said. Some airlines had stopped flying in and out of Cairo, and the scene at the airport was hectic.

“When we got to the Cairo airport there was such a mob of people shouting at each other, jostling,” Phelps said. “We felt very fortunate to book passage.”

The Phelps’s arrived back in Billings Feb. 4, and look back on their time in Egypt as a historic experience.

“We came away with the feeling that the most important trip was what we experienced in Egypt, as hazardous as that was,” Phelps said. “I think we have an idea of what the revolution is about.”

“I tried to think of any other parallel in modern history where this type of revolution is taking place, and for the life of me I can’t think of one,” he added. “It’s absolutely amazing.”

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