As television and computer screens around the globe have tuned into Al Jazeera or CNN to witness the unprecedented anti-government protests in Egypt the last few weeks, several members of the University community experienced the revolution firsthand.
University students, faculty, staff and alumni were studying, working and conducting research in Egypt when the protests started on Jan. 25. Since the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Egypt, most University affiliates have left the country, but whether they were studying Arabic in Alexandria or Cairo, participating in an archeological dig in Upper Egypt, reporting from Suez and Tahrir Square or coordinating the evacuation from Ann Arbor, the protests have greatly affected members of the University community.
It was about 9 p.m. when University alum Matthew Ward and his roommate first heard protesters on the main street in their neighborhood in Alexandria.
Ward, who graduated from the University last spring, is one of four University affiliates participating in the University’s Arabic Language Flagship Partner Program. Students in the program, administered through the Near Eastern Studies department, study Arabic intensively in Ann Arbor for three years. Upon graduation, they spend a summer or full academic year taking classes at the University of Alexandria, while teaching classes and interning.
Ward had been living in Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt, since June and said it felt like home. He said when he came home to have Christmas with his family he experienced “reverse culture shock,” adding he was relieved when he got back to the comfort and safety of Alexandria.
“(Alexandria) is probably the safest city I’ve ever been in,” Ward — who is back in Ann Arbor — said last week. “I could walk around at night with my iPod in and not have to worry about crime.”
The protests, Ward said, were unexpected as Egyptians are traditionally politically apathetic. So when he and his roommate heard the chants coming from the street below their apartment, they decided to join in.
“We ran downstairs and walked alongside the protests,” Ward said. “We got to a point where we were at an intersection, and we were confronted with the police and police vans and they started throwing stun grenades. So we all started running, and there were riot police everywhere.”
Jan. 25 — the Day of Anger — was when the anti-government protests in Egypt started in earnest. Inspired by the uprising in Tunisia and fed up with President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime, young Egyptians took to the streets en masse in response to a call-to-arms on Facebook and Twitter.
Three people — two protesters and one policeman — died that first day as overwhelmed police showered protesters with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.
Still, Ward said the situation wasn’t so bad that night. The protesters were mostly peaceful, but he said that he had a feeling the situation would turn violent.
University alum Kim Michalik, also a Flagship Program participant, arrived at Cairo International Airport at about 3 a.m. after a three-hour bus ride traveling south from Alexandria.
Michalik had just finished her final exams at the University of Alexandria and was headed home to Houston, Texas to visit her fiancée. Her trip to the airport that Friday morning, she said, was nothing out of the ordinary.
“Everything was very calm at that point,” Michalik said. “On the trip there wasn’t anything different from any other trip I took to the airport. There weren’t many people out because it was the middle of the night. The airport was not very crowded. The only difference was that there was no Internet this time.”
Though Michalik didn’t know it at the time, the Internet wasn’t working because the government had shut off Internet access throughout the country in an ill-fated attempt to prevent the protests from continuing.
The attempt failed, as thousands of protesters again took to the streets, but Michalik was unaware of any of this until she landed back in the United States.
“My flight made it out, and I didn’t hear anything until I saw my fiancée at the airport, and he was telling me that there were a lot of flights that were cancelled so everyone was worried about me,” she said. “That’s when I heard about all the protests breaking out.”
Now at home in Houston, Michalik acknowledges how lucky she was to make it out of the country, but she said she feels a bit guilty knowing her friends and the host family she was staying with are still potentially in danger.
Michalik said she’s been calling her host family daily to check on them. They’re safe, she said, but every night the boys and men patrol the streets to protect the neighborhood from looters and criminals.
“The first day I called was very traumatic because they were telling me that there were criminals who were released from prison, and they were going into the houses and stealing from them and killing people,” Michalik said. “So, I was very worried about everyone I knew there.”
While Michalik had returned to the U.S., Ward and his friends in Alexandria were coping with the protests that had gripped the city. The military had been deployed, but the protesters continued to demonstrate.
Ward decided to stay home and not participate because he was worried about violence, but he said some of his friends ventured to the western end of the city where the protests were taking place.
“There were a lot of things burning,” Ward said. “All the police stations were on fire, and they saw a car explode. But they didn’t feel like they were in danger because we were very familiar with Egyptian culture and Egyptians, and we felt comfortable where we were. The only thing they weren’t comfortable with was the possibility of plainclothes policemen arresting them.”
Back in Ann Arbor, John Godfrey, the assistant dean for international education at Rackham Graduate School, had been realizing for days how dangerous the situation in Egypt was becoming. After the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Egypt, it was determined that University affiliates in Egypt needed to be evacuated. Godfrey coordinated the effort.
“We just appraised that the situation in Egypt, with the interruption of communications, with the likelihood that the protests in Egypt would continue on for a while … we thought that it was time to move,” Godfrey said. “It’s a hard choice. We pay attention to the messages from the State Department, and when we thought that our students would be in an untenable and potentially risky situation where they couldn’t be safely sustained, we decided to pull it.”
Initially, Godfrey said he and the University were unaware of the students on the Fellowship Program in Alexandria. Their focus was solely on a group of three undergraduates — two from Ann Arbor and one from the University’s Flint campus — who were studying at the University’s joint program with American University in Cairo.
AUC hadn’t started its new semester, but had postponed the start of classes on Jan. 28. Coupled with its policy of not offering study abroad programs in countries with a State Department travel warning, the University decided to cancel its program at AUC this semester.
Ultimately, one student in the AUC program elected to stay in Egypt with her grandparents who live there and re-enroll in classes directly at AUC. The other two students, meanwhile, left Egypt on a charter flight to Athens on Jan. 31.
Godfrey said the University first learned about the Flagship Program students in Alexandria on Saturday, Jan. 29.
“We learned everything about their program very quickly because I called the administrators in Near Eastern Studies on the weekend,” Godfrey said. “They gave us all the information we needed at that point. The program those students were on arranged very quickly for their evacuation.”
Godfrey also helped coordinate the evacuation of a University graduate student and his wife, who were both studying in Cairo, as well as a group of graduate students, faculty and staff on an archaeological dig in Upper Egypt — about 350 miles south of Cairo.
Though the archaeologists weren’t directly involved in the protests — the nearest demonstrations were in Luxor, 100 miles south from their dig site — they decided it was best to leave.
“Food was becoming less available,” Godfrey said. “The distribution networks in the country were breaking down. Communications were uncertain. They weren’t able to get additional minutes on their cell phones, for instance. Initially they wanted to hunker down, but it’s a joint team with (New York University) and NYU decided to leave and at that point the co-directors decided it was best for all of them to pull out.”
But as most of the University community in Egypt was trying to evade the protests and leave the country, University alum and former Michigan Daily Managing Photo Editor Alexander Dziadosz was headed toward the mayhem.
As a reporter with the news agency Reuters, Dziadosz has been living in Cairo since Sept. 2007 and working with Reuters since October 2009, Dziadosz wrote in an e-mail from Egypt to The Michigan Daily.
On Jan. 28, Dziadosz was in Suez, a working class city on the banks of the Suez Canal. In an article published by Reuters on that day, Dziadosz and Yusri Mohamed portrayed scenes of lawlessness and destruction.
The article describes Egyptians fed up with the country’s crippling levels of poverty. According to the article, “about 40 percent of Egypt’s 79 million people live on less than $2 a day.”
“I make 400 Egyptian pounds ($70) a month,” a 35-year-old mechanic who wished to remain anonymous said in the article. “I pay 300 pounds for rent, 20 pounds for electricity, I pay 15 pounds for water. I pay 5 pounds for gas. There is not enough left for food and drink. Where is the medicine? Where is the transport?”
According to the article, by mid-afternoon, police and security forces had lost any semblance of control of the streets. In particular, the article describes one young protester who sat in front of a burning police station on a leather chair in the middle of the road.
As he sat there, the article states that one of his friends took a picture of him on his cell phone and said, “this will go on Facebook, what do you think?”
Dziadosz wrote in an e-mail that the sources he’s talked to while reporting on the story said the protests have stemmed from a number of issues, including the aforementioned poverty, the highly publicized death of Khalid Said — an Egyptian man beaten to death by police last year — and a controversial parliamentary election victory by the ruling National Democratic Party.
“Many of the protesters and analysts I’ve talked to have said public anger over the alleged beating death of Khalid Said, a crushing NDP victory in parliamentary elections, rising prices and the example of the Tunisian uprising pushed Egyptians to take to the streets in numbers unprecedented during Mubarak’s rule,” Dziadosz wrote. “Many point to the fact that the first protest was planned to coincide with Egypt’s national ‘Police Day’ as an indication of the protesters’ aims.”
By Saturday, the day after the protests became truly violent, Ward said he knew he was ready to leave Alexandria.
“I wasn’t afraid or anything, but I saw how quickly everything was deteriorating,” Ward said. “People were setting up illegal checkpoints, beating people, taking people’s stuff; armed militias started forming. I just saw it deteriorating so quickly and I felt like our window of opportunity to leave was waning, so I wanted to leave.”
Ward said he didn’t venture out to the protests after the first night he participated. Instead, he said he was “glued to the news” following the protests.
After the events of the previous day, Ward and other students from the Flagship Program in Alexandria stayed at the apartment of the program director. That night Ward watched from the apartment balcony as the local men fended off looters.
“I was on a balcony, and there were a couple of times where people were being chased out (of the neighborhood),” he said. “There were neighborhood watches and people were carrying pipes and sticks and just patrolling the neighborhood. There were a couple of times where people were looting, and they had to chase them out and down the street and out of the neighborhood.”
With the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere still raging, nothing monumental happened during Ward’s exodus from Egypt.
“It was pretty eventless,” Ward said. “We took a school bus and waited in traffic forever. Once we got to the airport, our plane was delayed for an hour, but nothing really happened. The military was in control of everything by that point.”
Now back in the United States more than three months early, Ward and Michalik’s future is just as uncertain as Egypt’s.
Since he graduated, Ward said he’s going to look for a job in Ann Arbor or potentially take a class at the University, adding he wants to continue studying Arabic to fulfill the Flagship Program’s requirements.
“I’ll probably just stay in Ann Arbor,” he said. “I’m waiting to hear back from graduate schools, so I’m kind of in an in-between stage right now.”
Michalik, meanwhile, didn’t want to discuss her future plans, but said she was distraught that her short trip home had turned into a more extended stay.
“It was just supposed to be a two-week vacation, and after that I was going to go back for another three-and-a-half months,” Michalik said. “I still had a lot of progress in the language I wanted to do. There were still a lot of places I wanted to travel. I would’ve preferred to have a formal goodbye with all my friends and my host family.”
Both were shocked by the suddenness of the evacuation. One day they were studying and living in an idyllic city on the Mediterranean coast, and the next day Michalik is in Houston and Ward is back in the harsh Ann Arbor winter.
“Right now I can’t believe I’m in Ann Arbor,” Ward said.