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Coping with crisis

07.02.2011 - Interview

At the start of the protests in Egypt, there were 50,000 German nationals in the country. In an interview with dpa, Michael Bock, the German ambassador in Cairo, recounts what the past few weeks have been like for him and his staff.

For weeks now the German Embassy in Cairo has been in a state of emergency.Thousands of German nationals have needed help to leave the country, at one time as many as eighteen spent the night at Ambassador Michael Bock’s residence.In an interview with dpa in Cairo, he explains why there might initially have been some problems in getting assistance organized and what he would most like to do when things eventually settle down.

Ambassador, some Germans reported recently that initially the Embassy failed to provide sufficient help and they couldn’t get through on the phone.Were there problems in getting your act together?

We shouldn’t forget there are around 50,000 German nationals in the country, 15,000 who live here as well as some 35,000 tourists. When a crisis erupts, many Germans at home are of course worried, so the first thing they do is pick up the phone to inquire about the situation. Under such circumstances it’s clear – even though the Embassy reacted at once and got all hands on board immediately – that you can’t fulfil all wishes, however justified, or allay all fears. The telephone service was interrupted, too, it shouldn’t be forgotten. We then worked incredibly fast to set things up so we could help everyone leave the country who wished to do so. At times we had ten embassy staff at the airport working with the airlines to organize departures.

Did you call in extra staff to get on top of the situation?

The Federal Foreign Office sent out reinforcements straightaway. Unlike other embassies in Cairo, we increased our staff, while elsewhere staff were being sent home because of the security situation. Due to the curfew and general insecurity, many of my colleagues were in the Embassy non-stop for almost a week, going home just to pick up a change of clothes. They worked round the clock to the point of exhaustion, catching a few hours’ sleep now and then on a mat on the floor. I made space in the children’s room in the residence so they could sleep there. The crisis has demanded the utmost of everyone – that was the only way to cope.

With all this stress, were there any particularly positive experiences?

Every day I get loads of emails from Germans now back in Germany. I also get letters from editors thanking us for all we’ve done to help journalists in trouble. That’s very rewarding and gives us strength to carry on doing the best we can. So although we’re all pretty tired, the atmosphere in the Embassy is excellent.

How many Germans found shelter in the Embassy itself?

I didn’t keep a tally of course. Some stayed just a few hours waiting for the next convoy, others stayed the night. One night I put up eighteen people at the residence.

How many Germans have left the country so far?

We need to distinguish between those who live here and those who’ve come as tourists. Many of the tourists in the Red Sea resorts, where there’s little to be seen of the crisis, apart from the fact that cashpoints don’t work and petrol is in short supply, have taken up the holiday companies’ offer to fly them home early. But many others have opted to stay on until they’re due to go home. My guess is that rather more than half the 35,000 German tourists here have flown home as planned. A good many of the German nationals living here want to stay on.

There’ve also been a number of Germans arrested.How did you manage to get them released?

Our contacts with the Egyptian authorities were never broken off. As soon as we heard German nationals had been arrested, we got in touch with the authorities immediately. And they did then help. We managed to get them all out, first released from detention and then out of the country.

Ambassador, when things have settled down a bit, what would you most like to do?

I’m very fond of Egypt and once things have calmed down at the Embassy, what I’d most like to do is take a holiday here – in the desert.”

By kind permission of dpa

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