Babylon & Beyond

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EGYPT: A reporter's tortuous ride from airport to hotel

January 31, 2011 | 11:02 pm

A 3 a.m. car ride from the airport to downtown Cairo during curfew is a trip between two armed camps fighting for the future of Egypt.

Outside the airport Tuesday, the road is immediately blocked by chunks of concrete, and a dozen young men wielding broom handles and a baseball bat approach. When I identify myself as a journalist from the U.S., the well-dressed men smile and say, “Welcome to Egypt,” motioning for the driver to pass with me and another passenger.

Thirty yards later it is the army that stops us, an officer and several soldiers with an armored personnel carrier as backup. When the soldiers, their bayonets fixed, see the passport of my fellow passenger, a nervous retired general in the Egyptian police, they stiffen with respect and wave us through.

But constantly our path is blocked by vigilantes out guarding their neighborhoods from the ruffians of the revolution. We twist and turn through the streets, frustrated by one roadblock after another where we are told to turn back and try another route.

Finally, we find ourselves in downtown Heliopolis, founded a century ago by a Belgian industrialist. The vigilantes are wearing designer blue jeans, and welcome this unlikely couple, a police general and an American journalist.

Heliopolis is a traditional home of the army and army families. The military academy is here; so is President Hosni Mubarak’s palace. This is the Egyptian establishment demonstrators are trying to overthrow.

At one stop, someone whispers a password: “Maadi,” and I smile. Maadi is the wealthiest suburb of Cairo, where American diplomats mix with the richest Egyptian businessmen at the pool and tennis courts of the Maadi Club.

“Maadi,” we whisper at each roadblock and our path becomes clear. “Naam Mubarak,” yes to Mubarak, they say as we pass. As we leave Heliopolis, the streetlights are gone and the mood is equally dark. The general is more nervous. The vigilantes are now rough-hewn, some carrying machetes or knives.

Now I tell them, “American journalist,” and chit-chat in Arabic while the general tries to make himself small in the back seat.

The magic word has changed to “Hurriya,” freedom, and our clearly disgruntled driver whispers it over and over at each roadblock, not meaning it.

This is not his freedom, nor the general’s, they are talking about, at least not now. But the driver and the general are willing to do what they must to get home safely.

After 90 minutes, twice the time the ride normally takes, I’m dropped off three blocks from my hotel. I walk the rest of the way.

I feel at home in this country where I lived for seven years. But I know it is rapidly changing into an Egypt I have not seen before.

-- Timothy M. Phelps in Cairo