Evacuating Egypt

Article excerpt

Byline: Angela Wu

American students studying abroad in Egypt recount harrowing tales of how they got out and what comes next.

As gunshots echoed in the background, Robert Joyce spent his last Friday night in Egypt, Jan. 28, writing an Arabic paper in his dorm. Outside, a mob was shaking a main gate off the building, which houses primarily Egyptian students at Alexandria University. By this point, the once peaceful protests in Egypt's second-largest city had grown violent, but the possibility of class the next day was still very real.

By Saturday, the university had canceled classes for the next week. As campus security guards and dorm staff abandoned the student-housing complex, Joyce fled his dorm with about a dozen other Americans for the relative security of a friend's local apartment. "We knew [protesters] would very easily get into the unguarded dorm complex, and we'd be sitting ducks for any type of violence," he said. The students grabbed what they could--computers, clothes--and hurried out while daylight remained. For some that meant fleeing with only the shirt on their back.

Like Joyce, many study-abroad students in Egypt recount harrowing tales of trying to escape amid mounting chaos as the protests started to turn violent. Most have spent the past five days scrambling to return home--navigating closed roads, dealing with canceled flights, and calling on senators and parents for help. At this point, most universities have successfully evacuated the students and reunited them with relieved families. It seems unlikely that anyone will return to the region this semester, so many students are now trying to figure out what comes next and where they will study.

In the past, Egypt was widely considered one of the safest havens in the Middle East. The country best known for the Giza pyramids has, in recent years, attracted more than half of all American students in the region, according to the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that develops international study programs including the State Department's Fulbright. "We didn't really have any concern about Egypt not being safe," said Lesa Griffiths, associate provost for international programs at the University of Delaware, which this past Sunday flew home 22 students and two professors.

Like many colleges, Delaware doesn't support study-abroad trips to countries on the State Department's travel-warning list. But on Tuesday, Egypt became the newest member of the list, after the hotbed of angry protesters had citizens fearing for their safety. Students recounted seeing protesters burn down police stations while chanting and screaming broke out around the dorm.

As late as Thursday, Middlebury College's Schools Abroad program director in Alexandria had sent a reassuring message to the college, saying that the demonstrations were largely peaceful. But that didn't last. "From Thursday to Friday, that changed completely," said Michael Geisler, vice president for the Middlebury program. "So we made the decision to evacuate the students."

Over the weekend, "the mayhem really started," said Alex Puig, a former operations officer for the CIA who manages security assistance for International SOS, which has evacuated more than 800 clients from Egypt. "It was amazing how quickly it changed from the students being able to see a movement being born in Egypt to sheer terror--'Get me out of here because there's looting and mayhem in the streets.'"

As college staff at Middlebury frantically arranged the students' exit, Joyce spent part of Saturday night wielding a broomstick on the street with the neighborhood watch that had been organized to protect the building from armed looters, escaped convicts from a nearby prison, and thugs rumored to be hired by President Hosni Mubarak. "About every hour to 45 minutes, there'd be a car or a group of guys with guns who would start shooting, and the entire mob of people on the block would charge them," Joyce says. …