January 25 was a holiday previously designated to honor Egyptian police — a symbol of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt. This year, it became a day of opportunity for Egyptians to challenge that leadership.
Sparked by recent resistance in Tunisia, riots broke out in Egypt on Tuesday, Jan. 25 to protest poverty, rampant unemployment, government corruption and the 30-year-reign of President Mubarak.
The riots quickly escalated into political turmoil that forced two UR students to evacuate the country the day before their study abroad semester was to begin.
UR juniors Cecelia Scribner and Leah Miller were both hours away from their first classes at the American University in Cairo when they noticed the first signs of political unrest.
“My first encounter with the protests was when I was walking along the Nile, and I suddenly felt an itch in my eyes and throat,” Miller recollected. “I then saw people covering their noses and mouths with tissues walking towards me, and I realized that I was feeling the tear gas from the other side of the river.”
The program advised the students to avoid the planned protests and political activists, but no one was aware of the revolution these events would soon transpire into.
On Jan. 25, the students were scheduled to visit local madrasas and mosques. But, as the protests intensified, the government shut down the city’s major roadways and police corralled tourists and foreigners, directing the students back to the university. It was only then that they began to understand the severity of the situation that was unfolding.
Within a few days, the government had shut down the Internet.
Streets were silent and dead, absent of the lively commuters that typically fill them. Store shelves were empty, cell phone minutes were impossible to find, banks were closed and the ATMs had run out of money.
The students struggled to occupy themselves as they lingered in their dormitories, obliging to the citywide curfew with limited telephone access and no internet access. The police sometimes guarded the dormitories with makeshift barriers and fire hoses.
Even when faced with despair, the students were able to find hope in their surroundings. Miller expressed great appreciation for the hospitality and compassion of the Egyptian people.
“On the street, people would direct us away from the protests and approach us to make sure we knew about the curfew,” Miller said. “There was also a point where a man standing behind me in the grocery store offered me the bread in his cart when the store had run out.”
It was moments like these that gave Miller and Scribner a sense of security in the midst of this chaotic political scene.
When possible, the two students were in communication with their families and with Jacqueline Levine, Assistant Dean and Director of the Center for Study Abroad, who has been working to relocate them.
“We’ve never had to deal with a situation in which students had to leave a program after it had begun [for political reasons],” Levine noted.
When the U.S. Department of State recommended that all non-essential personnel leave the country, Miller and Scribner joined the 2,400 other Americans attempting to evacuate Egypt.
Both students intend to enroll in another program after their quick return from Cairo. Although most study abroad programs have already commenced and are no longer accepting students, Levine is confident that she will be able to place Miller and Scribner in another program, as many are trying to accommodate the needs of students displaced from their studies in Egypt.
“Although the two of us were evacuated, I think it is important to keep in mind all of the people who are still in Egypt right now,” Miller urged people to remember. “Many of the Egyptian students that I met in Cairo were unable to evacuate with citizens of other countries, which makes them subject to the dangers that I was able to escape. That being said, a lot of the stuff that the country is going through will hopefully bring about a better future for Egyptians.”
Senior Maya Dukmasova has no family or kinship relations in Egypt. Yet, since the first day of the widespread protests against President Mubarak, she has been following the news closely and spreading the message to UR students.
Dukmasova has also been corresponding with the friends she met on her study abroad program in the American University in Cairo (AUC) last semester. Those who were planning to stay a whole year in Egypt found their studies disrupted, but are currently making plans to return to Cairo. Classes are set to start on Sunday, Feb. 13.
Double majoring in Philosophy and Religion, Dukmasova chose to go to Egypt to observe the way American and Western media cover events in the Middle East. She also interned at Daily News Egypt, the only independent English language newspaper in the country.
“I’m…very surprised, but, at the same time, I’m generally happy that this is happening,” Dukmasova said. “It’s amazing to see people for two weeks now just going at it. Latest reports are that things are slowing down, but I’m still optimistic and hopeful that this will bring about some sort of lasting change.”
For senior Shady Al Damaty, the revolution was an issue closer to heart. Born in Cairo, Damaty has a large family in Egypt, whom he keeps in touch with through Facebook.
“I feel nothing but pride that the Egyptian people stood up for what they believed was in the country’s best interest, exactly how a democratic country that supports the ‘general will’ should be run,” Damaty said.
His cousin, Shady Samy El Damaty, was personally in Tahrir Square, providing treatment and comfort to those injured by security forces.
When asked if she had expected the revolution to happen, Dukmasova replied that she did not get a sense of energy and restlessness in the people during her time there. If anything, the people she met were apathetic about politics and the possibility of things changing.
The wide gap between the rich and poor in Egypt was not something new to its people. The poor have always been frustrated with their lack of options, aggravated by the recent economic crisis. Additionally, a lot of university graduates are unemployed and do not have good prospects for the future.
“There was this sort of frustration but it was also more of this resignation,” Dukmasova noted.
Damaty, however, thought that discontent has been festering for a while and that Egyptians have come to despise the forces charged with maintaining national security. He also attributed the discontent of the people to widespread reports of corruption.
“The Egyptian people have always been known to be quite proud of their history. Nationalism has always been an integral part of Egyptian society,” Damaty said. “In part, that is what fueled Mubarak’s early [resignation]. I would always hear people discuss Mubarak and his refusal to leave office.”
Despite the positive outlook, several factors could impede the people’s revolution. The uprising could potentially be co-opted by groups that will set Egypt back or fail to produce the change people wanted.
Both Damaty and Dukmasova expressed doubts that the Muslim Brotherhood will seize control of the government, as rumors are suggesting.
On whether she wished she could have been present for the revolution, Dukmasova said she felt more informed and effective doing her part here.
“Part of me does wish that I was there to take pictures and talk to people,” Dukmasova said. “At the same time, I don’t know how much I would have been able to follow there. The general fear and incomprehension of people around me could have gotten in my way of really understanding the situation.”
Damaty put his hopes in a new modern Egypt, much unlike the stagnant Egypt of yesteryear. He believed that the people are open to ideas, and that their determination will prevail.
“Nobody wants war, just a better state of life,” Damaty said.
Davidge is a member of
the class of 2012.
Lim is a member of
the class of 2014.