Boston area natives cope amid turmoil in Egypt

Cairo business owner joins with neighbors to ward off looters

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / January 31, 2011

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As fighter jets flew low over protesters in a Cairo square yesterday and criminal gangs roamed streets nearly empty of police, Timothy Quinn, a Boston native, prepared to join a nightlong neighborhood watch carrying a piece of PVC tubing for protection.

“I’ll be right there as long as they need me,’’ said Quinn, 30, a Boston Latin School graduate who has a start-up T-shirt business in Cairo, where he has lived for eight years. “At this point, it’s quasi-organized. It’s every able guy who’s willing.’’

Quinn, whose parents live in Allston, said he had no immediate plans to leave Egypt, where he learned to speak fluent Arabic, earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from the American University in Cairo, and has established a wide circle of friends,

“I mean, I live here. I’m taking it day by day,’’ Quinn said by telephone from his home in Giza, a city adjacent to Cairo. “There’s no police presence in my neighborhood, nothing.’’

The US Embassy, which has allowed nonessential staff to evacuate, planned to start flying other Americans out of Egypt today to safe havens in Europe. About 52,000 Americans are registered with the Embassy in Cairo, says the State Department.

Quinn lives about 2 miles northwest of Tahrir Square, where thousands of demonstrators have seized the Cairo plaza from overwhelmed police forces. Until last night, Quinn said, he had confined most of his outdoor movements to daytime hours during the six days of political demonstrations. But the emergence on the streets of dangerous criminals, some of whom escaped from city prisons during the unrest, has heightened a sense of random lawlessness in Cairo, Quinn said. The government has imposed a 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew, widely ignored.

“They’re forming motorcycle gangs, putting two or three guys on a bike, and going up and down streets trying to loot, cause panic, and get money,’’ Quinn said.

In response, neighborhood watches of three to 30 men, ages 15 to 50, have gathered on street corners throughout the city, he said. “People have brought kitchen knives, meat cleavers, and clubs — whatever they have in the house,’’ Quinn said.

On Friday, Quinn said, he walked to within a mile of Tahrir Square. “I still felt a strong presence of tear gas, but a very strong sense of solidarity among the people. There was a sense and purpose that people were going to get this done.’’

Virginia Quinn, his mother, is watching the events from afar with a parent’s anxious concern.

“I have to have some kind of trust that he has a sense of what he’s doing,’’ she said in a phone interview from her home in Allston. “But I’m concerned, because if it’s a real people’s revolution, this could be a ringside seat for an American Revolution kind of thing, and I don’t want him to have a ringside seat.’’

Family anxieties in the United States have been fueled further by restricted, sporadic communication with Egypt since the protests began Tuesday. Although Timothy Quinn had phone service yesterday, he could not send text messages or access the Internet, which the government of President Hosni Mubarak has shut down to cripple the organizing efforts of the protesters.

Another set of local parents were also worrying about their child in Egypt yesterday. In Concord, the hometown of Audrey Gourlie, a Colby College junior who arrived in Cairo Jan. 21 to begin a semester at the American University, her parents have been watching television coverage almost nonstop on Al Jazeera.

“They could smell the tear gas on the first day’’ of protests, said Brian Gourlie, her father, who spoke with Audrey by phone yesterday. “The army is stationed outside their dorms. The important thing to know is that she’s safe.’’

Although Audrey had assured her parents that “everything is fine,’’ her father said, she has decided to take advantage of the university’s option, beginning today, to leave Egypt.

“We’re very pleased and really relieved,’’ said her mother, Virginia Gourlie. “I woke up [yesterday] morning feeling strongly that she needs to move out of there.’’

Brian Gourlie said the students had “been asked to pack their bags — a carry-on and a small bag — and to label things they leave behind.’’ Although students had been restricted to their dorms during the protests, he said, “they had pizza delivered a couple of days ago.’’

In addition to evacuation by State Department flights beginning today, private companies already have begun transporting Americans out of Egypt. Dan Richards, chief executive officer of Global Rescue, said the Boston firm is planning to evacuate between 200 and 300 clients by air, water, and ground. One flight with three corporate clients left Cairo yesterday, Richards said.

“The situation on the ground is very fluid. Things are changing rapidly,’’ said Richards, whose evacuation teams include former military special-operations personnel. “There are checkpoints, roadblocks, and groups of armed men that are roaming through Cairo and the suburbs.’’

Tarek Masoud, a Middle East specialist who teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said the protests appeared to subside yesterday. A lessening of intensity, he said, could mean that people will begin to focus more on personal safety than protest in a city where criminals are increasingly active.

Timothy Quinn echoed that assessment. For some of the protesters, he said, “if it’s between regime change and making sure their families and businesses are OK, they’re going to go back to their businesses and families.’’

Still, Masoud said, the future looks grim for Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule.

“I think the Mubarak regime is over, and we need to recognize that and understand that,’’ Masoud said. “I think anything short of regime change, not leadership change, is just going to lead to tremendous problems down the road. We’ve got an opportunity here.’’

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at