NZers anxious over family in Egypt

By Matthew Backhouse of NZPA

Anxious New Zealanders with relatives in crisis-torn Egypt say they are worried about what might happen next.

More than 100 people have been killed across Egypt and thousands injured in anti-government riots as protesters demand that President Hosni Mubarak resign. There are also reports of widespread looting, vandalism and opportunistic crime.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) this morning upgraded its travel advisory to New Zealanders, saying there was "extreme risk" as the unrest and demonstrations in Egypt continued.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully today said New Zealanders should not travel to Egypt and those already there should leave if it was safe to do so.

There are 295 New Zealanders known to be in Egypt.

The New Zealand Embassy in Cairo was due to open today, but would remain closed due to damage to the ground floor during protests over the weekend. The building was also without power.

Embassy staff were continuing to work out of the ambassador's residence.

Mr McCully said he was concerned by the on-going violence in Egypt.

"Egypt is at the centre of the Arab world and has long been a force of moderation and leadership in promoting regional peace. Now that same sense of moderation needs to be shown on the streets of Cairo by all parties," he said.

"There is obviously a strong wish among the Egyptian people for a more broadly-based government and for greater freedoms and improved economic conditions and this desire needs to be respected by Egypt's leaders."

New Plymouth lawyer Murray Cochrane, whose 32-year-old son Craig has been trying to flee the country, said gunshots resounded down the telephone line the last time he spoke to his son.

His son was due to leave Egypt yesterday after a five-day escorted tour but found out yesterday his flight had been cancelled.

Mr Cochrane said communicating with his son has been difficult as the Egyptian authorities have clamped down on internet and telephone use, but his son was still able to call New Zealand.

He last spoke to his son earlier today, about 10.30pm local time.

"There was gunfire in the background, which I could hear even before he drew it to my attention," Mr Cochrane told NZPA.

"We optimistically assume for the moment, in the absence of any other knowledge, that nothing worse has happened since that."

Mr Cochrane said his son was putting on "a brave front" but he and his three brothers in New Zealand were worried.

"It's just extremely frustrating ... you just don't know."

His son had been staying only a few kilometres from the epicentre of the unrest on Saturday night.

"There were tanks and army people and protesters going up and down all the time. A large window in the hotel was broken," Mr Cochrane said.

"He could, from his hotel, see smoke away in the distance, he could hear all kinds of noises. There were people patrolling outside his hotel with sticks and things to try and keep their neighbourhood safe."

He was now staying at a hotel about 17km from the centre of the city, relatively near the presidential palace.

He spent most of yesterday at the airport, and was now scheduled to leave late afternoon Monday local time.

Mr Cochrane said he would like the Government to indicate that it could assist people if they continued to have difficulty getting flights.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian community in New Zealand is wracked with anxiety over what might happen next.

Christchurch sociology and philosophy researcher Ahmed Tarek Bahgat Abaza, who has helped to organise solidarity rallies in Cathedral Square, said people in the community he had spoken to were nervous.

"People have been crying, people are very worried about their families. We've been able to contact them only recently - there was a time when we weren't able to contact them," he told NZPA.

"Really what we are worried about is what will happen next."

He said families in Egypt were scared and confused.

"Some of them are basically locked in their houses, and they don't go on the street," he said.

Most Egyptians were optimistic the political situation would change, he said.

"They're hoping that this happens as a revolution - a revolution in the sense that the government is removed," he said.

"These are very rare events - the last revolution in Egypt was in 1919."

However, Mr Abaza said he personally thought the regime was "too strong" for a big change to happen.

He called on the New Zealand government to show more support.

"The Government needs to say, explicitly, this is not acceptable," he said.

"John Key, I have heard nothing of such things from him."

Mr Abaza and others have set up a Facebook group, called New Zealand Egyptian Solidarity Movement, as well as a Twitter feed.

They have also organised solidarity rallies, with one to take place at Cathedral Square at 7pm today.

Prime Minister John Key said today he would not join calls for President Hosni Mubarak to go.

"New Zealand wants a peaceful outcome to this, in the end whoever governs your country is a matter for the citizens."

- NZPA

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