BREAKING NEWS: EGYPT: Four Hundred Irish Citizens Trapped Amid Egyptian Revolt: UPDATED

31 Jan

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Tahrir square in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

 AP – Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Tahrir square in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Jan. …

HUNDREDS of Irish citizens are attempting to flee Egypt as the country descends further into crisis, sparked by a violent popular revolt.

As large crowds continued to demonstrate their opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s reign in a sixth day of national protests yesterday, tensions were fuelled by a show of strength by the country’s powerful military.

Minutes before the start of the 4pm curfew, fighter jets made multiple passes over Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square while there was a significantly increased presence of both army tanks and police — who had been almost unnoticeable for two days — on the ground.

Up to 100 people have lost their lives amid unprecedented calls for an end to President Mubarak’s three-decade rule.

Cairo, Alexandria and Suez have been beset with looting and armed robbery, while gangs have attacked at least four jails freeing thousands of inmates — including hundreds of Muslim militants.

Amid the chaos, it has now emerged that as many as 400 Irish citizens are effectively trapped in the unfolding crisis.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has confirmed 200 Irish citizens are working or living in affected areas of Egypt, with most located in Cairo. They are people who have emigrated, left for work purposes or who have dual nationality.

While exact figures were last night unavailable, Irish Travel Agents Association chief executive Pat Dawson said as many as 200 more tourists could also be trapped amid the growing chaos.

In a statement, a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said the Irish Government has advised against “all travel to Egypt at this time” and that any citizens in the country should “exercise extreme caution and avoid all demonstrations”.

While the Irish, British and US embassies in Cairo have urged citizens to leave the country, dozens of flights out of Cairo have been delayed or cancelled.

EU foreign ministers are meeting to discuss the crisis later today; with Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague confirming the risk of Egypt “falling into the hands of extremism” will be discussed.

* Irish citizens in Egypt should contact the embassy duty officer in Cairo on +22 174443942.

People in Ireland seeking information should contact the Department of Foreign Affairs on 01-4082999 (8am-10pm) or 01-4780822 outside these hours.

(Editor’s note: The Department of Foreign Affairs seems to have been SOUND ASLEEP over the past week – while the UK Foreign Office had issued TRAVEL WARNINGS About the situation in Egypt days ago).

NEWS UPDATE:

AP – Three women gesture for victory as they attend a demonstration in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday Jan.30, 2011. …

By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press Brian Murphy, Associated Press:

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Just days before fleeing Tunisia, the embattled leader went on national television to promise 300,000 new jobs over two years.

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak did much the same Saturday as riots gripped Cairo and other cities: offering more economic opportunities in a country where half the people live on less than $2 a day.

The pledges-under-siege have something else in common: an acknowledgment that the unprecedented anger on Arab streets is at its core a long-brewing rage against decades of economic imbalances that have rewarded the political elite and left many others on the margins.

The startling speed — less than two months since the first protests in Tunisia — underscored the wobbly condition of the systems used by some Arab regimes to hold power since the 1980s or earlier. The once formidable mix of economic cronyism and hard-line policing — which authorities sometime claim was needed to fight Islamic hard-liners or possible Israeli spies — now appears under serious strain from societies pushing back against the old matrix.

Mubarak and other Arab leaders have only to look to Cairo’s streets: a population of 18 million with about half under 30 years old and no longer content to have a modest civil servant job as their top aspiration.

One protester in Cairo waved a hand-drawn copy of his university diploma amid clouds of tear gas and shouted what may best sum up the complexities of the domino-style unrest in a single word: Jobs.

“They are taking us lightly and they don’t feel our frustration,” said another protester, homemaker Sadat Abdel Salam. “This is an uprising of the people and we will not shut up again.”

The narrative of economic injustice has surrounded the protests from the beginning.

“The regimes and the leaders are the ones under fire, but it’s really about despair over the future,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “The faces of this include the young man with a university degree who cannot find work or the mother who has trouble feeding her family.”

Tunisia’s mutiny that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was touched off by a struggling 26-year-old university graduate who lit himself on fire after police confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart in December. Apparent copycat self-immolations quickly spread to Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere.

In Yemen, the poorest nation on the Arabian peninsula, sporadic riots have forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh into quick economic concessions, including slashing income taxes in half and ordering price controls on food and basic goods.

On Friday in Jordan, thousands of marchers clogged streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai and call for measures to control rising prices and unemployment. Many chanted: “Rifai go away, prices are on fire and so are the Jordanians.”

King Abdullah II also has tried to dampen the fury by promising reforms, and the prime minister announced a $550 million package of new subsidies for fuel and staple products like rice, sugar, livestock and liquefied gas used for heating and cooking.

What feeds the flames is common across much of the Arab world: young populations, a growing middle class seeking more opportunities and access to websites and international cable channels, such as Al-Jazeera, which have eroded the state’s hold on the media.

There are no clear signs on whether more protests could erupt.

Syria’s authoritarian regime remains in firm control and has taken gradual steps to open up the economy. Rulers in the wealthy Gulf states have the luxuries of relatively small populations that often receive generous state benefits and other largesse. Kuwait’s emir, for example, pledged this month 1,000 dinars ($3,559) and free food coupons for each citizen to mark several anniversaries, including the 1991 U.S.-led invasion that drove out Saddam Hussein’s army.

But there have been stirrings of discontent in North Africa. Earlier this month, security forces in Algeria clashed with opposition activists staging a rally apparently inspired by neighboring Tunisia. In Mauritania, a businessman died after setting himself ablaze in a protest against the government.

A state-backed newspaper in Abu Dhabi, The National, ran interviews from four men from across the Middle East describing their trouble finding work. One 33-year-old Syrian, who has an English literature degree from Damascus University, complained he cannot find a teaching job or afford to get married.

“I feel as though I am in the Samuel Beckett play `Waiting for Godot,’ which I studied during my degree,” Khaled Kapoun was quoted as saying. “I keep hoping that tomorrow a job will come along.”

Even high Arab officials have expressed unusual candor following Tunisia’s upheaval.

Earlier this month, the head of the Arab League warned that the “Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession.”

“The Tunisian revolution is not far from us,” Amr Moussa said in his opening address to the 20 Arab leaders and other representatives of Arab League members gathered in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. “The Arab citizen entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration.”

Moussa, who is Egyptian, called for an Arab “renaissance” aimed at creating jobs and addressing shortcomings in society.

But at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, some experts said an education overhaul is needed in the region to shift from emphasis on state jobs to more dynamic private sector demands.

“Many people have degrees but they do not have the skill set,” Masood Ahmed, director of the Middle East and Asia department of the International Monetary Fund, said earlier this week.

“The scarce resource is talent,” agreed Omar Alghanim, a prominent Gulf businessman. The employment pool available in the region “is not at all what’s needed in the global economy.”

___

Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Dan Perry in Davos, Switzerland, contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS name of gathering to World Economic Forum, not Global Economic Forum.)

NEWS UPDATE:

By ERIC TALMADGE, Associated Press Eric Talmadge, Associated Press :

TOKYO – Countries sent planes Monday to evacuate their citizens from the unrest in Egypt as world leaders called on President Hosni Mubarak to implement reforms and seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Heads of state from Europe urged the Egyptian government to implement democratic reforms and avoid further violence against protesters. Asian powers China, India and Japan said they were closely watching developments and hoping for a peaceful resolution, while preparing flights to get their citizens out of harm’s way.

The protests in Egypt were to top the agenda of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers on Monday in Brussels. The EU has traditionally had particularly close relations with Egypt as part of its partnerships with countries on the eastern and southern rims of the Mediterranean.

With the situation still fluid, leaders were cautious about their public statements.

But the initial reaction in Europe and elsewhere stressed the right of Egyptians to assemble and supported calls for reform.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Mubarak in a phone call on Sunday that she expects him and his newly nominated government to grant freedom of information and the right to assemble, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

She urged Mubarak in a lengthy conversation to open dialogue with the country’s citizens, and focus in particular on the concerns of Egypt’s youth. She also told him that security forces have to avoid further violence against protesters.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking at the African Union’s regular summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said that “It is with friendship and respect that France will be on the side of Tunisians and Egyptians in such a crucial period.”

“Our conscience needs to be pricked by the cries of innocent victims and move us toward finding a workable solution to prevent further suffering,” he added.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama also discussed the Egyptian crisis Sunday evening, a spokeswoman for the prime minister said.

“The prime minister and the president agreed that the Egyptian government must respond peacefully to the ongoing protests,” a spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity in line with department policy. “They condemned the violence of recent days … The prime minister made clear that restrictions on the media and Internet were unacceptable and should be lifted immediately.”

Cameron and Obama “were united in their view that Egypt now needed a comprehensive process of political reform, with an orderly, Egyptian-led transition leading to a government that responded to the grievances of the Egyptian people,” the spokeswoman said.

The British Foreign Office confirmed that a conversation between Foreign Secretary William Hague and his Egyptian counterpart had also taken place, but did not release any further details.

Leaders in Asia were cautious.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing hopes normalcy and stability will be restored in Egypt soon. The Japanese and Indian foreign ministries issued similar statements.

“We hope that the government of Egypt will listen to the voices of many citizens, promote reforms in a way that gains support of a wide range of people and realize its stability and progress,” Japan’s government said.

Following Europe, Canada and the United States, governments across Asia were arranging transportation for their citizens to leave Cairo. China’s state television reported a plane is on its way, and that there are more than 500 Chinese at the airport.

The Indian government has arranged an Air India flight to carry 300 Indians, mainly women and children, from Cairo to India, according to a statement by the External Affairs Ministry.

“We are closely following with concern the developments in Egypt. India has traditionally enjoyed close and friendly relations. We hope for an early and peaceful resolution of the situation without further violence and loss of lives,” said ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash.

In Washington, Obama told foreign leaders this weekend to spread word of the U.S. administration’s desire for restraint and an orderly transition to a more responsive government in Egypt.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday that the U.S. wants to see “real democracy” emerge in Egypt, “not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into essentially a military dictatorship.”

The White House said that Obama had sought input from European and Middle Eastern officials, and has told them that the U.S. is focused on opposing violence and supporting broad democratic rights, including the right to peaceful assembly and speech.

It said that Obama had also spoken with leaders from Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, also speaking Sunday at the African Union’s summit in Addis Ababa, called on the Egyptian government to respect fundamental freedoms and human rights.

___

AP reporters from around the world contributed to this story.

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