Stories from Egypt: A student account of unrest in Cairo
Catherine Litten, a junior in the School of International Service, had been in Egypt less than two weeks before she and other AU students were evacuated. She will continue her study abroad in Rabat, Morocco.
Are you currently studying abroad in Egypt and where? Since when have you been there?
I was studying abroad in Egypt. I was to attend American University in Cairo for the 2011 spring semester. I had arrived Jan. 21, and left Feb. 1.
What’s your living situation like? Homestay/apartment/roommates? Where in Cairo?
I was living in the Zamalek dorms, located on the Zamalek island neighborhood near downtown Cairo (Tahrir Square was right across the Nile from us). It was a dorm of largely American/international students, separated by genders (one half of the building was men’s, one half women’s).
Can you describe what you have experienced in Egypt so far? Have you experienced any of the violence/riots/etc.? What was it like? Is it scary? What have your friends experienced?
In terms of experiencing the sights of Cairo, not a lot happened. We had a week of orientation on the AUC campus, which is located 20 miles outside of Cairo in New Cairo, and most days the orientation ran from 9 to 3, with us catching a 1.5 hour shuttle ride back to the dorms ... not a lot of time to explore.
On Tuesday, Jan. 25, the start of the protests, a tour of Old Cairo/Islamic Cairo was arranged for us. We had at least 15 plainclothes cops/security officers following us (about a group of 100, mostly American, students), as well as quite a few regular police officers. The day was supposed to last until 5 p.m. Around 1, we were rushed through Khan el Khalili (the big, famous bazaar in Cairo) and around 1:30 were loaded onto our buses saying we were all being taken back to New Cairo campus ... not the dorms. We were told by our RAs this was simply a precautionary measure and that we were all safe, but we’d have to stay on campus for an hour before the buses could take us home.
Hearing this, Eva Rasho, Macarena Torres-Girao and I (all AU students), went to sit a mere 30 feet away from where everyone else was sitting so we could chat and enjoy the view of the gardens at AUC. AUC’s campus is literally the most gorgeous campus I have ever seen. Knocks AU’s socks off.
Anyway, after 20 minutes we head back to the main plaza and everyone is gone. We’re told by someone that the bus left 10 minutes ago. We of course panicked, but believed another, regular shuttle would take us back. At that point it was 3:55, and we were told another shuttle would arrive at 4. We get on this shuttle, and 10 minutes out, the shuttle turns back and the driver says we are stuck on campus ... no shuttles are running to Zamalek since the roads have been blocked (we drive through downtown to get back to Zamalek). We began calling RAs, orientation leaders and others ... and are told we will probably have to spend the night on campus.
However, the three of us as well as two other girls left behind did not want this to happen. We called a cab, and spent 2.5 hours driving to our dorms. We had to take a circumnavigated route, going halfway across Cairo in order to find an unblocked bridge onto our island.
For the past week we’ve been on curfew set by the government, usually from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. During the day we would walk around Zamalek, since we could not access the rest of town really. At night, we’d sit on the rooftop terrace and hear gunshots and tear gas grenades echoing through the city, because Cairo, a city of 18 million, essentially became a ghost town at night. The dusk calls to prayer echoed throughout the city, being the only sounds beyond those shots we’d hear.
We’d watch billowing smoke rise from buildings that were set on fire/being looted, and would look down below as we watched people who lived in the Zamalek neighborhood arm themselves with sticks and pipes, the only means of defense against looters. Tear gas would waft up to us along the wind, making our throats burn and our eyes water.
One night, I can’t remember which now, we saw a car get smashed in from the terrace. Another night, I think Sunday night, around 2 a.m., RAs came pounding on our doors telling us to lock them from the inside – something was going on outside. It turned out to be a false alarm, but nonetheless, for many students who left the next day (Monday) for evacuation, it only confirmed the need to leave Cairo.
As for myself, I never felt in danger on the island. If I had ventured into the protests I would have felt different I’m sure, but if I could have stayed I would. AUC however had already delayed class a week, and the day we left said they were delaying it another week – AU said if the semester became too truncated, we would not receive credit if we stayed. None of us could risk staying and not getting credit/no refund, so we left. It was not due to the protests that we evacuated, but due to academic uncertainty.
What’s happening to the students in the AU program now? Are they remaining in Egypt for the rest of the semester or are they being sent home?
For AUC, 7 of the 8 of us have evacuated (we weren’t really in contact the with the last person). Macarena and I are going to the AMIDEAST Rabat program, leaving Istanbul for Morocco tomorrow. Hannah and Kaitlin are studying abroad in Istanbul and are already here (they left Monday night, we left Tuesday afternoon).
Eva is returning to D.C., however it is up to the professors whether she can get into classes, and many professors have shown reluctance at letting her reenter due to their feeling that she could not catch up, even though she is willing to do the work and is in a dire situation.
Patrick is unsure yet, but may go to the UAE Sharjah program or back to D.C. Finally, Greg is planning to attend AU Rome. We’ve all been evacuated and all ended up in Istanbul.
But more information on the AMIDEAST program: It already started, however, half of AMIDEAST Cairo is going to the same program, so we’ll all start behind together. I will be doing home stay and the program ends May 14, early than AUC’s May 26. Luckily, I booked a one-way ticket to Cairo to being so do not have to worry about cancellations/connections/reimbursement for that flight.
Are you getting reimbursed for any part of your study abroad program?
For AUC, since we did not start classes, we get a full reimbursement for our tuition, which will go to our new programs. For dorm costs, we are unsure, but are hoping we’ll be mostly reimbursed. Most of us also paid for trips arranged by AUC, such as trips to Alexandria and Sinai that were obviously canceled and we hope to be reimbursed for those as well. We are unsure how long this process will take.
Do you plan to return to Egypt when things have calmed down?
Macarena and I plan to return to Cairo at the end of our Rabat program for two weeks to actually see Egypt, and visit our Egyptian friends we made there. Hopefully things are calm by then.
Is there anything else you think is interesting to add?
As much as this was an interesting experience, never did I once feel unsafe. More than anything, the worst part was us not knowing what to do, what was happening or where we’d go. It was a state of limbo for a number of days, and everyone was feeling the pressure. I may have a stomach ulcer now.