Egyptians abroad come home for 'revolution'

AFP, Monday 7 Feb 2011

For many Egyptians abroad, watching raging anti-regime protests on television was not enough

Many Egyptians abroad made excuses at work, convinced their families, and booked flights home to join the "revolution".

For some the decision was easy. They were seeing a lifelong dream unfold in their homeland, and they knew they had to get there to take part.

For others, it was more difficult. They struggled to work out whether their presence would be useful, and how they could leave behind jobs and family.

"I was caught by surprise by what happened," said Fadel Zayan, a 32-year-old consultant. "We've all been hoping that it would happen for years."

There was little doubt in his mind that he should return to Egypt, over the objections of his family in Cairo, who were "adamant" he should stay in London.

"I came back because I wanted to take part in the revolution but also because I wanted to check on my family."

Tarek Shahin, a fund manager also living in London, was travelling when the first major demonstration against President Hosni Mubarak took place on January 25. He arrived back in London on January 28, and started watching television.

"I watched Egypt change as the streets burned. I booked the first ticket to Cairo the following day," he said. "I had to be in Cairo."

Shahin, like Zayan, had watched news reports describing widespread looting in Cairo, opportunistic violence conducted after Egypt's police force disappeared from the streets of the country's main cities.

"Coming here I had no idea whether I was here to protect my family from the danger of chaos or to participate in the protest before it fizzled," Shahin said.

He was quickly drafted into a neighbourhood watch standing guard over his area by night. By day, he worked remotely, communicating with his colleagues in London by landline.

His bosses were supportive, but worried about his safety and his family, even asking if he needed help bringing relatives to London.

Tarek Mounir, a surgeon in Geneva, Switzerland, had a more difficult time deciding whether to leave his wife and children to come back to Egypt.

"I was changing my mind every five minutes. It was quite difficult," he said.

On February 1, Mubarak made a speech pledging he would not stand for re-election in September, and promising to seek constitutional reforms. "When the president came out, I leaned towards not going, thinking that his word meant something," Mounir said. "I kind of thought it might be a good idea to let him stay in power."

But a day later, he watched in horror as Mubarak supporters charged Tahrir Square. Several people were killed in the clashes that ensued.

"I think that's what made a lot of us decide that even though we might not change the balance in favour of the revolution, there was no way we would continue to sip our coffee overseas when our countrymen were being treated like that."

His nine-year-old son was "demanding" that he leave, and his colleagues offered to take his shifts "so I could take part in the revolution."

"It was important to feel that you put your words into action, that when what you have believed in your whole life is unfolding in your country, that you're not watching from far away."

As days of protests have turned into weeks, diaspora Egyptians now face another tough decision, deciding when to return.

"We'll see how the next few days go," said Shahin, who has so far pushed back his return twice.

"It's the type of thing that only happens once in your lifetime," said Zayan. "I don't want to look back and wish I'd extended my stay."

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