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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Under Attack, Cairo Hotel Sends Twitter SOS

Video of unidentified men streaming into the lobby of Cairo’s Semiramis InterContinental hotel broadcast live on Egypt’s ONTV early Tuesday.

As our colleagues Kareem Fahim, David Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh report, the mayhem on Cairo’s streets briefly spilled into the lobby of one of the city’s luxury hotels, the Semiramis InterContinental, during intense clashes between riot police and protesters along the Nile Corniche overnight.

Images of a mob streaming into the hotel, broadcast live on Egyptian television and then posted online, raised fears of further damage to the country’s already battered tourist industry.

<>Judging by a series of urgent pleas for help posted on the hotel’s Twitter feed, the raid came just after 2:30 a.m. local time.

SOS If anyone knows anyone in #Military #Police #Government, please send help! Thugs in Lobby #Emergency #Tahrir #Jan28 #Egypt

â€" InterContinental (@ICSEMIRAMIS) 29 Jan 13

Within an hour of sounding the alarm on the social network, the staff reported on Twitter that the security forces had arrived.

Guards at the hotel told Bel Trew of the Egyptian news site Ahram Online that phone calls to the police and the army initially went unheeded as about 40 men armed with shotguns, knives and a semiautomatic weapon broke into the shuttered lobby and started looting.

An Ahram Online journalist who witnessed the attack, Karim Hafez, said that protesters had stopped fighting with the police to help secure the hotel: “When they realized these groups were trying to loot the hotel, protesters shot fire crackers at them as they attacked the building and tried to push them away from the area but these groups were armed with birdshot bullets.”

This reported cooperation of the protesters with the police officers they have been battling on and off for more than two years prompted bloggers like the British-Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr to comment on the black comedy of the situation.

An Egyptian blogger, Mohammed Maree, reported on his @mar3e Twitter feed that a police captain on the scene confirmed to him that the protesters who were fighting with the security forces when the raid took place were not responsible for the storming of the hotel.

Mr. Maree also reported that witnesses to the raid said it began after four people drove up in a car with no license plates and fired shots to scare protesters away, before storming the hotel. He later posted a photograph of some of the hotel’s guests leaving under the protection of protesters.

Nabila Samak, ! a spokesw! oman for the hotel who posted the calls for help on Twitter, told The Times that the staff had called Egyptian television stations for help earlier in the evening, well before the attack, because they’d been worried about an attack during the running street battle that has now continued for several days.

Ms. Samak told Ahram Online that the staff worked to secure the hotel’s guests but were not equipped to cope with the effective collapse of the police force, since, “no guards of hotels in Egypt are armed.” Later she thanked protesters for coming to the aid of the hotel’s staff and guests.

A Saudi women who identified herself as a guest at the hotel, Hilda Ismail, posted updates and photographs from a shelter the guests were taken to during the incident on her Arabic-language Twitter feed.

In one message, she wrote: “If there is no Egyptian security, and if Morsi is sleeping, where are this country’s men!! Come get these dogs, the Semiramis Hotel is being ransacked and we are there.”

Later, Ms. Ismail uploaded a brief video clip of a man attempting to reassure guests that they were safe after the arrival of special forces officers from the ministry of the interior led by a Captain Moataz.

In the clip, the man tells the guests that the police captain wants “to assure you that the hotel is secured and it is under the control of the ministry of the interior now. Within no time you will go back to your rooms and already are in safe hans.” The police, the man added, “will make sure that such thugs will not enter the hotel again. We are sorry.”

Ms. Ismail also posted an image of the ransacked lobby on Twitter.

Ms. Ismai’s claim to have been a guest at the hotel was supported by the fact that she had uploaded a brief video clip, apparently shot from a high floor of the hotel, showing the fighting on the Nile Corniche below.

The luxury hotel chain, which was created in 1946 by Pan American World Airw! ays, did ! not immediately reply to a request for comment, but an executive in Cairo told Al-Masry Al-Youm, an Egyptian newspaper, that “more than 45 clients insisted on leaving despite the hotel’s offer to relocate them to higher floors, away from the clashes.”

Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim in Cairo.

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.