More:Information for U.S. Citizens Currently in EgyptAbout the Author: Paul Mayer is a Consular Officer with the Department of State. He is currently on temporary duty assignment in Cairo, Egypt.
What do you do when you when you're a State Department consular officer and you're asked to travel halfway around the world, on very short notice, to assist with a crisis the breadth of which is still unknown?
First, you ask permission. When I was asked on Sunday, January 30 whether I would be willing to fly to assist in the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Egypt, the first person I asked was my wife. Traveling away from a safe and comfortable life into an unknown and probably stressful environment is more than trading one work location for another. It also means you leave behind school pick-up schedules, your daughter's swimming lessons, and responsibility for paying the rent. You also ask permission from your supervisors and colleagues, since they'll take on an extra measure of responsibility in your absence. (They almost always say yes, thank goodness.) After having endured separation when I traveled to Haiti in January 2010, my wife asked if I really wanted to go.
I did. I wanted to go because the duty to assist U.S. citizens in a crisis is one of the State Department's core responsibilities. Colleagues in the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the Operations Center's Crisis Management and Support office work and plan diligently for this sort of thing. They run exercises at embassies and consulates worldwide. They help you get prepared in advance, help you think how many people will need to travel, where they'll need to go, and how long they'll stay. They help us get the airplane tickets and they tell us where we'll be sleeping (even if it's on the floor of the embassy). They have our backs every step of the way.
I knew I wasn't going alone. We knew that our talented consular staff at Embassy Cairo had been working like crazy, but at a pace one can only sustain for so long, especially when your family members have been ordered to depart the country until the crisis passes. Over the next two days, nearly two dozen consular officers and State Department colleagues from around the world converged on Egypt and several other places -- Nicosia, Istanbul, Athens, and Frankfurt -- where we predicted U.S. citizen evacuees might be sent.
Along with my colleagues Chris and Doug, I waited for several hours on the runway at Frankfurt airport, while paperwork was completed that would allow us and our chartered airplane to bring in 10,000 pounds of food and water. After a more than three-hour flight, we waited for many hours in the Cairo airport while paperwork was completed that would allow us to bring in crucial electronic equipment. Things that might be routine under normal circumstances were difficult, because Egypt was embroiled in what some have called the most significant political upheaval in a generation.
Because there's a 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. curfew in effect right now, there were no evacuees waiting at the airport when we left at 1:30 a.m. Thanks to aggressive outreach from our consular and public diplomacy teams in Washington and Egypt, there were hundreds of evacuees at the airport during daylight hours the following day. At the time I'm writing this, consular officers have already assisted with the safe and orderly departure of more than 2,300 evacuees. Some are just tourists who were at the right place at the wrong time, but many more of them were long-term residents, who with clearly heavy hearts, left behind their homes and friends in Egypt. We saw them -- with suitcases that held enough clothes for a two week trip -- at the airport, where we'd rented part of an airline terminal. We told them that we hoped they'd be home soon. As is necessarily the case, we also had to tell some people that we couldn't assist with their evacuation request. Our first responsibility is to U.S. citizens and their immediate family members, and as long as there were flights out on commercial air carriers, they still had options.
It is now Friday night in Cairo. On the day of an exceptionally large gathering in downtown Cairo, afternoon prayers have now been completed. We -- like the rest of the world -- are watching the television. Earlier today, my colleagues helped some U.S. citizen journalists who'd been seriously injured under problematic circumstances, and none of us wants to see that again. We're updating our Facebook pages to assuage the worries of friends and family. And just like we've been trained to do, we are using our downtime to assess the situation, to consult with Washington, and think what we will need to do when the sun comes up tomorrow.