Middle East studies in the News
Days Of Rage: An American Student's Harrowing Story As Egypt Erupts In Protests
Erin Biel is a 20-year-old sophomore at Yale. She decided to study abroad for the spring semester in Egypt and arrived at the American University in Cairo last month. Here's her day-by-day account of living through the tumult.
Sunday, Jan. 23:
The bus rumbled over a pothole, jostling the laptops that the students were poring over and disrupting the bus's wi-fi connection. A friend turned to me, "Erin, have you seen this Facebook event about government protests in Tahrir this Tuesday? There are tens of thousands of people said to be attending."
I was dubious: "No, but then again, protests like that happen every so often here. It's doubtful such a large number of people will actually show up. It's easy enough to say [on Facebook] that you are 'attending.' It's another thing to actually follow through."
Tuesday, Jan. 25:
It's the Egyptian holiday known as Police Day, and I'm being told we have to leave the Khan al-Khalili market before protesters arrive. The streets of downtown Cairo had already become chaotic; we needed to take a long detour to get back to our dorms in Zamalek, an island in the Nile about a 15-minute drive from Tahrir Square. That night I gathered in the dormitory lobby with other students and stared intently at the CNN International coverage of the protests. I wondered whether the rest of the world was staring as intently as we were, and then I went to bed.
Wednesday, Jan. 26:
I and four friends decided to head downtown as the protests continued. I told my Colloquial Egyptian Arabic teacher that I needed to leave class early and when she heard my reason, her face turned grave. She tried to discourage me, saying that even she was afraid of going to the protests. The police didn't distinguish between men or women, Egyptians or non-Egyptians. If you were a protester, you were fair game. I said I wasn't aiming to be in the center of the protests, fighting the fight of the Egyptian people. I was going as a staunch supporter of human rights, and I wanted to show my solidarity with the Egyptian people.
By the time we arrived in Tahrir, around 6 p.m., the police had routed much of the activity. Everything was eerily quiet compared with a normal day downtown. Hundreds of police were ensconced on every corner--shields at the ready--standing alongside dozens of paddy wagons and armored vehicles.
We walked toward 26th of July Street, a thoroughfare that passes the Supreme Court. As we neared the courthouse we saw policemen indiscriminately rushing down side streets, shooting rubber bullets and leaving stampedes of people in their wake. But at the courthouse the atmosphere was somewhat peaceful and dignified as a few hundred people chanted and waved signs.
Then I heard the shots again and turned to see hoards of people rushing toward me. I bolted down three street blocks. The sense of chaos and danger that I had heard about on TV the night before was all too real.
Thursday, Jan. 27:
I walked into my Arabic class and my teacher greeted me with a relieved gaze. She had supposedly had a minor panic attack after I left the day before, regretting that we hadn't exchanged cellphone numbers in case I didn't return. She said that after a great deal of thought, she had decided to attend the protests the next day. Her sense of reserve seemed to have taken flight, and she had an air of levity about her. I didn't realize it then, but this would be my last class in Egypt.
Mohamed ElBaradei returned to the country that afternoon and he was expected to address the people in Tahrir after Friday prayers. It was clear that Friday's protests, soon known as "The Day of Rage," would be different, and the government was well aware of that, too. The government cut off Twitter and Facebook to make it hard for the protesters to organize. I was still able to connect to both sites, however, by using Yale's VPN (virtual private network), and I continued to religiously follow Jared Cohen, Steven Cook, the Arabist, and other twitterers and blogs, gathering information that I relayed via text messages to my peers.
Late that night I called another student and learned that she hadn't received my last three texts. The government had just shut down texting. I restarted my computer, hoping to e-mail people this news. The Internet was not available. The VPN was no longer of any use.
I went to see a friend who lived down the street and when I returned around 2 a.m., I was confronted with posters plastered on every dorm wall notifying students of rumors that the government would also be disabling all mobile phone service Friday morning. We were told to call our parents immediately because it might be the last time we'd be able to contact them for a long while. Landlines still worked but I didn't have one. In semi-disbelief, I called my home in Indianapolis.
Would Mubarak truly sever nearly every means of communication that his citizens had? Sure enough, I woke up the next morning and checked my cellphone, only to hear a discordant beeping tone. I pictured Mubarak with a menacing grin, scissors in hand.
Friday, Jan. 28:
The intensity of the protests increased dramatically. The Muslim Brotherhood endorsed the protests for the first time, and there was a fear that Mubarak would use this development as an excuse for more police violence. I decided against joining the protests; without a cellphone, I was especially afraid of getting separated from my group.
So I again joined the students flocking to the TV in the dorm lobby. We watched CNN and BBC, but it soon became apparent that they were merely regurgitating the same information for hours on end--information that was very lacking in detail. We switched to Al Jazeera, which provided live updates and had far better footage. Relying upon our Egyptian residential assistants to translate the Arabic into English, we learned that the Ministry of the Interior was burning; that the Egyptian museum had been looted; that the military was purportedly siding with the people; and that Mubarak had appointed Omar Suleiman as the first vice president in his 30-year reign. We were enraged when Mubarak shut down Al Jazeera.
That night we watched White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on CNN and many of us scoffed at his safe rhetoric and unrevealing, consistent response: "We are monitoring the situation." We feared that if President Obama continued to approve of Mubarak's remaining in power--or skirted the issue entirely--anti-American sentiment might begin to mark the protests, threatening our safety. Washington's reaction was viewed as hypocritical for a country that so often talks about exporting democracy to other countries.
Saturday, Jan. 29:
The curfews were now encroaching upon our days more and more. The original 6 p.m.-8 a.m. curfew became 2 p.m.-8 a.m., forcing us to spend most of the day indoors. Not that there was much to do outside, with most shops closed. Zamalek is an upscale neighborhood of embassies, university buildings and tony apartment buildings, but many stores had covered their windows with newspapers so looters couldn't see the merchandise inside. The only activity involved people endlessly lining up at the two main supermarkets in the area, which quickly sold out of bottled water. My friends living off-campus now had to boil all of their water, but the university had purchased enough water for everyone in the dorm to last us for weeks.
That night I stayed at a friend's apartment just around the corner from the dorms but overlooking much of central Cairo. We could see the crowds being tear-gassed late into the night. Shots rattled through the air, plumes of smoke dotted the skyline, and laser tracers would shine on our window as snipers searched for a target. At 1 a.m. we got a call on the landline phone: Looters had stormed a bank down the street.
Sunday, Jan. 30:
I returned to the dorm to find posters again adorning the walls. The U.S. Embassy was advising American citizens to leave the country. That night the university gathered the students and told us that the State Department would begin evacuation flights in the morning. Citizens would be evacuated to Athens, Nicosia or Istanbul, and you could not pick your destination. The flights were first-come, first-served--no booking ahead--and you had to sign a promissory note to repay the cost before getting a place in the queue.
Mobile phone service had just resumed, so I quickly called my mother. She had already submitted my information to the State Department. She left no doubt that she wanted me out of there.
But I wasn't so sure. I had looked forward to this experience abroad for months, and had outlined every place I wanted to visit and every little thing I wanted to do. I had been in Cairo for only two and a half weeks, and suddenly I was faced with this unwelcome evacuation the next day.
Overwhelmed with emotion and uncertainty, I called a Yale Divinity School student who was studying in Cairo. From his professor I learned about the horrors at the airport. Thousands of people had flooded the departure terminal and many were camping out night after night before getting a flight. All food, water and even toilet paper had run out.
And I had now run out of money on my Egyptian SIM card. With all of the mobile phone shops closed, I had no way of loading new credit onto my card and could receive only incoming calls. Fortunately, I had my BlackBerry from the States with me, but using it would be extremely costly.
Monday, Jan. 31:
I packed my suitcase in the morning but at the last moment decided to wait another day before heading to the airport. I was hoping to evade some of the crowds, but I was also reluctant to leave. The delay certainly didn't make my mother happy, but it turned out to be a fortuitous decision.
A Yale administrator had e-mailed her that the university was devising its own evacuation plan. (I would've seen these messages as well, if I had Internet access.) Yale had chartered a flight through MEDEX, an emergency evacuation service. I acquiesced after hearing what Yale had told my mother: I could still sign up for the semester, even though classes had been under way for three weeks. With no idea when my Cairo classes would resume, I was in danger of losing a semester of school if I didn't return to the States.
At midnight I received a call from MEDEX telling me to rendezvous with the rest of the group--15 Yale students in all--at the Novotel hotel across the street from the airport. We would then be shuttled in two small buses to the airport, dropped off at a special terminal separate from the State Department's flights, taken through security, and then bused to our plane and flown to Amsterdam.
Tuesday, Feb. 1:
At 9 a.m., my Cairo university had me driven to the hotel. As I neared the airport, there were more and more tanks lining the streets and traffic was in knots. It took a half hour to cover the last half-mile. I joined the rest of the Yalies in the lobby, and we camped out for three hours before getting word that our flight had secured airspace for its departure. Hundreds of other groups were congregating around the VIP terminal, waiting for their chartered flights, but we were taken through security immediately and waited only an hour for our passports to be verified. Then we rode on a bus past 50 other planes on the tarmac and dropped in front of an Air Memphis (Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt) plane. This was our escape from eight days of havoc, rage and hope.
As we waited to take off, I tried to make sense of a week that seemed to have lasted months. I felt I could truly identify with the hospitality, the dynamism and the passion of the Egyptian people. Whether it's because of the Christians and Muslims protesting alongside one another, or the designated individuals who perform security checks on fellow protesters entering Tahrir, or the protesters still demonstrating all over Cairo as I write this, I hold great confidence in the Egyptian people as they fight their own fight. Egypt's future must be brokered by the Egyptian people, not the U.S. or any other country. The path forward may be long and arduous, but the demonstrators are showing formidable staying power, and they are not about to let 30 years of pent-up grievances fall by the wayside.
Wednesday, Feb. 2:
After Amsterdam I flew to Zurich and then to JFK in New York. Yale sent a driver to take me to New Haven because of an ice storm that welcomed me back home. I have every intention of returning to Egypt and when I do, I have no doubt it will be different--and for the better. My chapter in Egypt is certainly not complete. After all, I still have to see the Pyramids.
Erin Biel is a staffer on the Yale Globalist, the university's student-run foreign affairs magazine.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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