By MARK HARTSELL
Scores of protesters had been killed. The government had cut off Internet access and cellphone service. Bands of looters roamed neighborhoods. Even so, William Kopycki didn’t believe that the rioting that shook the streets of Cairo would force him to leave his office and the country.
Starting on Tuesday, Jan. 25 millions of Egyptians took to the streets and squares of the capital city in a series of intensifying and sometimes violent protests against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. On Saturday, Kopycki, the field director for the Library of Congress office in Cairo, still didn’t believe an evacuation would be necessary. The trouble will pass, he thought. It’ll be okay.
Two days later, he was gone. Kopycki and his family packed their bags and left for Greece.
“If anyone had asked me even Saturday morning if I’d be sitting in Athens now, I would have said, ‘No way,’ “ Kopycki said. “I would have said, ‘We’re gonna be here in Cairo. This will pass. Something will get resolved, and we’ll be back to work in a few days.’ “
Kopycki, his Egyptian-born wife, Eman, and their 8-year-old son, Husayn, flew to Athens on Monday. They were scheduled to arrive three days later in the United States, where he will direct the affairs of the Cairo office from Washington, D.C., until the situation improves.
The Library established the office in 1961 as a center for the acquisition and processing of library materials—commercial and non-commercial publications, government documents, newspapers, academic journals—from countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
The office is located in the U.S. Embassy—a two-minute walk from Tahrir Square, the heart of the protests—and employs, in addition to Kopycki, 34 locally engaged staff, 33 of whom are Egyptian nationals.
All of them are safe, but they’ve had an extremely difficult couple of weeks. “It’s been harrowing for everyone in some way,” Kopycki said.
Kopycki had called Ahmed Moustafa, the office’s head of serials, a few nights earlier just to check in. When the phone rang, Moustafa was down in the street, club in hand, helping other residents fend off looters.
“They were beating them back,” Kopycki said. “It sounded like a war scene.”
Kopycki, who joined the Library in April 2009, and his colleagues still are trying to absorb the momentous events that unfolded so quickly and engulfed the nation and shook the world.
The demonstrations started on Tuesday, Jan. 25. The turnout was remarkable, but the protesters were cleared out of Tahrir Square by 1 a.m. On Wednesday, employees returned to the Cairo office, where it was business as usual.
“Everyone was happy that the demonstration took place, and there was a general positive atmosphere,” Kopycki said. “I don’t think anyone realized how big it was going to get when Thursday and especially Friday came around.”
Later that day, the subway system was shut down in anticipation of more protests, and embassy employees were sent home early. But on Thursday, everything still seemed OK.
Staffers went about their work, taking care of last-minute details for the Cairo International Book Fair that was scheduled to open Sunday.
By day’s end, everyone was looking forward to the fair.
“Then Thursday night hit,” Kopycki said, “and Friday was just unbelievable.”
Staffers were staying in touch via Facebook, discussing the protests, debating rumors that the fair would be canceled.
About midnight, the government cut off access to Facebook. Everyone switched to the Facebook application on BlackBerrys.
By 6 a.m. Friday, the government cut off Internet access. By 10 a.m., mobile phone services were cut as well.
“It wasn’t the usual down down,” Kopycki said. “It was cut. You could tell that it was cut.”
He went to the office Friday morning, normally a day off. Staffers were working overtime to prepare a final shipment of books and serials to Washington before the fair began. He tried to send a fax to the Library’s offices in Washington, D.C., to give an update on the situation. He couldn’t get through.
Finally, he was able to get a message to his counterpart in the Nairobi Office to pass along to Washington.
Kopycki left for home, walking out of the embassy’s north gate through two rows of Egyptian riot police on hand to protect the embassy.
He made it home just as Friday prayers were ending—and just before the riots began. Kopycki turned on the television and watched it all happen.
“The events unfolded—especially in Tahrir Square—and it was just surreal,” he said.
Demonstrators marched toward the square, and Kopycki began to hear the sounds of shooting and of tear gas being fired.
Things got worse as the night wore on and the looters came out. Kopycki heard gunshots on his own street and lots of commotion. Residents wondered if government agents were responsible for the gunfire, trying to discourage people from leaving their homes to join the protests. Kopycki didn’t know.
“It was scary as hell,” he said.
On Saturday, the embassy announced that only essential employees—political section, security, for example—should report to work.
The book fair, clearly, was off.
“It was quite obvious to everyone that no one was going to work on Sunday with the situation the way it was,” Kopycki said.
Still, he wasn’t ready to evacuate.
The embassy strongly recommended the evacuation of non-essential employees, and the ambassador began compiling a list of emergency personnel with the aim of making evacuation mandatory.
Kopycki considered staying, but by Sunday he knew evacuation was inevitable (it became mandatory on Tuesday, Feb. 1). He sent a text to Zbigniew Kantorosinski, the senior overseas operations officer at the Library, to inform him of his plans. They connected by phone later that day, and Kantorosinski began to help make arrangements to bring Kopycki to the United States.
Early Monday, officials at the British school attended by Husayn told Kopycki the school was closing until further notice and that the teachers were preparing to evacuate. So Kopycki broke the news to his section heads and his wife’s family.
“Having to tell everyone that we were being evacuated was extremely difficult to do,” Kopycki said. “We feel incredibly sad … Everyone wants to believe that things are going to get better sooner rather than later, but I don’t know. We’re all still soaking this in.”
The Egyptian employees will return to work as soon as the ambassador permits, and Kopycki will direct things from Washington. He checks on the welfare of his staff several times a day.
State Department rules require that he remain out of Egypt for at least 30 days after his evacuation. He can return to his Cairo post only at the discretion of the U.S. ambassador.
But Kopycki is confident that he will return to Cairo and the office will survive the tumult.
“I’m sure something will get resolved,” he said. “The Library’s office in Islamabad, Pakistan, has been operating despite the turmoil there. Cairo Office staff regularly travel to ‘challenging’ countries such as Algeria, Syria, Sudan and Yemen in search of materials.
“These hard-to-acquire publications are processed, cataloged and sent to Washington, where they find their way into the hands of researchers from Congress, other government agencies and university academics from all over. These events just underscore the need for having these offices.”
Postscript: Hosni Mubarak was ousted after 18 days of demonstrations referred to as the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. On Feb. 11, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had resigned as president and transferred authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. That same day, Mubarak and his family left the presidential palace in Cairo and moved to Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt.
Videoconference Brings Global Staff Closer
Held in a mixture of English and Arabic and bound by the universal language of cataloging, a videoconference on Feb. 24 linked staff from the Library’s Washington, D.C., office with those in the Cairo field office. Catalogers in Cairo and on Capitol Hill solved problems and answered questions interactively in real time, even though they were roughly 6,000 miles apart.
William Kopycki, above, field director of the Cairo office, also participated in the conference from Washington, having been deployed temporarily to the Library’s Washington offices due to the political strife in Egypt.
Mark Hartsell is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.