As many foreigners and natives fled the turmoil roiling Egypt, Hatem Refaat boarded a near-empty plane in Dubai on Thursday night and headed back home to Cairo to join the massive demonstrations against longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
Refaat, 39, left his homeland 12 years ago for Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and then took a tourism job in Germany. Now a divorced father of three, he owns a company in Dubai, Pure Arabian Tourism.
He had grown impatient watching the protests on television. Meetings and negotiations on a new business project prevented him from flying home on Day 1 of the demonstrations. But by midweek, he had had enough.
“Honestly, I felt that I was watching and I was sitting,” Refaat recalled. “This is something that from our youth we have been waiting for: to stand up to the pharaoh.”
After his last meeting on Tuesday, Refaat booked his flight, and by Friday morning he was among the tens of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square demanding that the three-decade president step down immediately.
Dressed in a black ski shirt and a black pullover, Refaat moved among others who bore bandages making clear that this was not their first time in the downtown square.
After being away so long, and remembering chilly Egyptian winters, he wasn’t quite prepared for the hot midday weather Friday. Wrapped around his right hand was a black scarf, and around his waist, a second sweater.
Refaat, though, sounded prepared for whatever the future brings.
“I have accepted that I may not return,” he said. “We don’t have weapons; we are peaceful, but we will not flee.”
On Friday morning, he said, he awoke early and ate breakfast with his 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, who live, along with his 3-year-old son, with his mother in Cairo. He kept the conversation normal, he said, to avoid scaring them.
He left home before his mother and the 3-year-old woke up.
The 11-year-old wanted to go with him to Tahrir Square, but Refaat told him that every home needed a man to stay behind and protect it.
Growing up in Egypt, Refaat said, he realized at a young age that for his fellow countrymen, getting by was more important than having rights.
He wondered when the day might come “when the people will say their honor is worth more than a loaf of bread.”
But it wasn’t lack of economic opportunities that led the business college graduate to leave his country.
“I left because…" he began before briefly trailing off. “I left because I couldn’t live here in this life without freedoms, I couldn’t accept the way of life here.”
Whenever an Egyptian leaves the country, he said, it is a rejection of social injustice, daily indignities and political corruption.
Other expatriates he knows had no plans to come back and saw no point in participating, because they thought the protests would have no effect.
But for Refaat, coming back was an obligation.
“My heart was with them and my mind was with them,” he said of watching the protests from Dubai. “And thank God, I am here now.”