First Canadian flight leaves Egypt after airport 'fee'
The first group of Canadians escaped the turmoil and political uncertainty in Egypt Monday night, on a plane chartered by the Canadian government. But before they could board in Cairo, they were asked to pay the airport a "fee."
The Air Canada chartered plane carried 174 Canadians, according to the Foreign Affairs Department. Another plane is to follow in an effort to get 500 Canadians out of Cairo.
CTV's National Affairs correspondent Lisa LaFlamme, who travelled into Cairo with the first Air Canada Boeing 777, says the scene when they arrived was chaotic. Passengers were processed slowly through security, then held for five hours and told they could not go through the glass doors to board the bus that would take them across the tarmac to the plane.
"Finally, an Egyptian airport person walked around, literally with a hat, asking for American dollars, saying it would be really beneficial for them to thank the people who worked so hard to help them leave the country," LaFlamme told CTV News Channel Monday afternoon.
The passengers put as much U.S. cash as they had into the hat.
"It was not enough money, we are told. So someone got on a loudspeaker and said, ‘We need to raise US$2,000 in order to open the glass doors and let you on that bus'," LaFlamme reported.
"People were stunned, as you can imagine."
One angry passenger called it a "$2,000 bribe."
LaFlamme says one person came forward and put in the lion's share of the $2,000. The passengers were then allowed on the plane.
"For the people here, having been through the city, there have been other experiences of bribes; it's not that unusual, they call it baksheesh. But certainly under the guise of an airlift out of the country, it was a very unusual experience," LaFlamme said.
Canadian officials have contacted the Egyptian ambassador in Ottawa to raise concerns about the fee.
The first plane took off at 3 p.m. ET Monday for Frankfurt, Germany, where passengers will have to find their way back to Canada on their own. The Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that support will be offered in Frankfurt to help Canadians make further travel plans and secure overnight accommodation.
Further flights in coming days will be headed to London and Paris, in addition to Frankfurt, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon told reporters.
More than 6,000 Canadians are believed to be in Egypt, which is in the midst of massive street protests against autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.
Cannon said priority for the evacuation flights will be given to people holding a Canadian passport and their immediate family members, defined as a spouse and children.
Canadians will be required to sign a contract committing to pay their share of the flight cost from Egypt to Europe before they are allowed to board. The cost will be approximately $400 per seat, according to Foreign Affairs. Passengers will also be required to purchase their own tickets to leave Europe.
Many Canadians were on vacations in Egypt when the chaos broke. Carla Riemer and her husband were on a "dream vacation," years in the making.
"That first night we were hearing machine guns and saw fires and the next morning we said we said we got to get out of here," she told CTV News before boarding the rescue plane.
Cannon said about 250 Canadians contacted in Egypt have indicated they intend to stay there.
In a statement Monday morning, Cannon said the Canadian government is looking into options for evacuating citizens from cities other than Cairo. In the meantime, for safety reasons, those outside of Cairo should stay where they are, Cannon said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday he hoped Egypt would "transition" towards democratic freedom, a statement in line with those coming from the U.S. and Europe.
"We want to see a transition towards basic values of freedom, democracy, human rights and justice," Harper told the House of Commons. "We want to make sure the transition does not tend towards violence, instability and extremism."
Canadians in Egypt hoping to reserve a spot on one of the flights should call the embassy in Cairo at 20 (2) 2791-8700, or call the Foreign Affairs emergency operations centre in Ottawa collect at 613-996-8885 or 613-943-1055.
Friends and relatives in Canada seeking information on Canadian citizens believed to be in Egypt should contact the emergency operations centre toll-free at 1-800-606-5499 or 1-800-387-3124.
The Foreign Affairs Department said that as of early Monday, the emergency operations centre had received more than 4,900 calls about the situation in Egypt.
On Sunday, Cannon said to date no Canadians are known to have been injured or killed, but Ottawa is recommending that Canadians leave the country.