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Watching Egypt's turmoil from afar

By Summer Suleiman, CNN
George Khalil, 35, who left Egypt in 2008, works at an Atlanta convenience store. He has had trouble reaching family back home.
George Khalil, 35, who left Egypt in 2008, works at an Atlanta convenience store. He has had trouble reaching family back home.
  • George Khalil left Egypt nearly three years ago with his wife and kids for more opportunities
  • He says he's concerned about his parents and siblings who live in Alexandria, Egypt
  • Khalil says the situation is still unstable for those lucky enough to have jobs there
  • Khalil has been fixated on the TV coverage of Egypt since the protests erupted

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Atlanta (CNN) -- On a lively Saturday night in Midtown Atlanta, George Khalil helps the steady flow of customers who rush into his convenience store. But his thoughts are far from the beer and cigarettes that he quickly rings up.

Khalil, 35, says he's been trying for days to reach his family in Alexandria, Egypt. The phone lines have been down and internet connection has been blocked since mass protests broke out January 25.

Nearly three years ago, Khalil was running a small, family-owned pharmacy with his sister in Kafr el Dawar, a town outside Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city.

There, he was able to provide the essentials for his family, a rarity for many Egyptians. Nevertheless, he decided to leave in April 2008 because of economic uncertainties.

"I have children, and I wanted to bring them here for a better life, a better future," Khalil says.

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Khalil, his wife and two young children moved to Atlanta, where Khalil works full time at the Sam's Mart gas station.

Although he was able to survive, he says Egypt's economic state is so sensitive, that any minor change has a great impact on the people there.

Khalil says he is worried about the threat of violence to his mother, father and his two sisters, who still live in Alexandria. After days of trying, he finally talked to family members on the phone Tuesday, a week after the unrest began.

They said they were safe but there has been a lot of activity near their home. Anti-government protesters gathered Thursday in Alexandria to resume their demonstrations after a period of calm.

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Khalil has been fixated on the television coverage of Egypt for hours each day since the protests erupted. Khalil says a family friend told him rioters set the police station, courthouse and train station in his hometown on fire.

"I am very, very sad, and worried," Khalil says.

Khalil has returned to Egypt twice since moving to the United States but worries that he won't be able to go back anytime soon.

"I think it will take a long time to get better. A long time," he says. "It will keep going until the president gives an answer to the problems."

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There's a heavy sense of uncertainty in Khalil's voice when he's asked about the outcome of the uprising and the future of Egypt.

"I hope all the fighting will settle down," he says. "I think (Egyptian President) Hosni Mubarak -- the people need him to go."

But he warns an abrupt shift in power could cause further devastation.

"I think he (Mubarak) needs to stay for now, because if he leaves, all the groups beneath him will be fighting to get to the top," Khalil says. "It will be chaos."

The recent turmoil in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation with more than 80 million people, has raised concerns about the regional implications of its political instability. It follows similar anti-government protests in Tunisia, which led to the end of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule there.

Demonstrators also have called for change in Algeria, Jordan, Sudan and Yemen. Much of the reason for the protests in Egypt and the rest of the region is increased food prices and skyrocketing unemployment as well as underemployment.

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In Egypt, 20% to 30% of the population lives in poverty, according to U.N. data. The country also suffers from a chronic housing shortage, forcing many Egyptians to find shelter wherever they can.

And for those lucky enough to find ways of generating income, life is all work, according to Khalil.

"The people there, they have no jobs, no food, no blankets to stay warm," he said. "They have nowhere to use the bathroom. Some people are living underground. They need help."

As Khalil rounds out the end of his shift, an elderly man, who seems to be a regular, comes in and buys a pack of cigarettes.

On his way out, he turns to Khalil and casually asks, "Mubarak. Do you think he'll stay or go?"

Khalil pauses and answers with assurance, "He will go."

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