Aiken couple get close look at unrest in Egypt

Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Aiken residents Elaine and Bill Hillan talk about being in Egypt when demonstrators were seeking Hosni Mubarak's removal.

Elaine Hillan, from her window seat in the minivan, had a perfect view of the club- and knife-wielding men who overtook them as they drove into Cairo the night of Jan. 31. The gang stopped the vehicle and opened its sliding doors to look inside.


"We were kind of intimidated," Hillan said. "We didn't know at first if they were the good guys or the bad guys."

It was a group of vigilantes, protecting neighborhood stores from vandals. The men gave the tourists the once-over and then moved on.

She and Bill Hillan, a retired Aiken couple, had heard about the Tahir Square protests on television, but that was the moment it became real. They were caught in Egypt's revolution.

The Hillans were finishing a 12-day tour of the Nile River, visiting pyramids, the Sphinx and Egypt's other ancient monuments. It was a vacation that Elaine had waited her whole life to take.

Tens of thousands of people had filled the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year reign. Inflation, unemployment and a revolt that toppled Tunisia's regime weeks earlier inspired the demonstrators. Mubarak would eventually step down.

The Hillans first heard of the protests while watching CNN on vacation, but the ancient sites they visited were in southern Egypt, far away from the demonstrators. Their guide, an Egyptologist from Cairo, reassured everyone.

"When it first starts, you kind of think, this is just going to be another demonstration. It'll last a few days and then it will go away," Bill Hillan said. "Pretty quickly, it became obvious by the numbers and the determination they had that that wasn't going to be the case. We wondered how it was going to impact us because we knew we had to leave through Cairo."

The tour company cut short a four-day excursion to Jordan, where demonstrations also were under way. The group boarded three minivans headed for the Cairo airport, passing through army checkpoints. The couple arrived at their hotel safely but still had to make it onto a chartered plane the next day. Many people were trying to leave. Car traffic had stopped. People traveling by taxi got out and walked. Inside the terminal, things were worse.

"You've never seen an airport with so many people in it," Bill said. "They were packed in as far as you could see; there wasn't hardly any space left. People placed cardboard on the floor so they could sleep in the airport overnight."

The Hillans shoved their way through airport check-in and a three-hour wait at passport verification. Even though they would be using a chartered plane, they worried about when it might take off.

The couple eventually made their way on board, and when the plane departed, passengers cheered. They did it again hours later when they landed in Frankfurt.

Looking back, the Hillans said, they understand why the revolt had occurred. The Egyptians the Hillans had seen were attractive, polite and proud people. Still, many Egyptian children grow up in Third World conditions without hope for anything better, they said. Even the animals looked overworked, Elaine said.

"I always viewed Egypt as progressive," she said. "But our tour guide told us food prices had spiked 80 percent, and with such high unemployment, you could see where it would become depressing and people would get angry."