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Egyptian reflections - The Breeze: News

Egyptian reflections

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Posted: Monday, January 31, 2011 12:00 am

The first call home from a study abroad program usually quells a parent's concern and tells of the excitement overseas.

Junior Lindsay Holt's first call home told of riots, tear gas and police force.

"Needless to say, it's not what we bargained for on this study abroad program," said Mark Holt, Lindsay's father, in an e-mail.

Holt, an anthropology major, began her program in Egypt on Jan. 22 as an exchange student at the American University in Cairo with two other JMU students. Though she takes classes at AUC, Holt received a small grant from the Honors Program and pays JMU tuition.

On Tuesday protests calling for the end of President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-rule broke out in Cairo, after being organized on Facebook and Twitter.

"No one expected that so many people would show up for a Facebook page," said Holt who is still at the American University in Cairo. "It's the first time masses of Egyptians have used social media for peaceful protests like this."

Holt said she and her friends were advised to stay in Zamalek and not go to the ongoing protests throughout the week.

Friday, ignoring that advice, Holt and her friends crossed the Nile River, out of the secure area where the university is located to watch the protests.

"I've been studying this area for so long," Holt said Sunday over Skype. "This was just so meaningful and I wanted to be part of it somehow. Maybe [the protests] will be a bad move, but something's finally happening and its turning the world upside down."

Friday's unrest, which led to violence, began after the noon prayers finished and thousands of people poured into cities, confronting police who fired back with tear gas and rubber bullets.

According to Holt, after leaving their residence in Zamalek, they crossed the bridge heading into the city and saw a huge crowd chanting slogans in Arabic.

"I was terrified at first and I thought I found myself on something I've only seen on TV," Holt said.

Holt and her friends said the protestors tried to get across a bridge and were pushed back by the riot police, eventually coming to the bridge Holt was standing on.

"We got trapped on the East Bank of the Nile," Holt said. "I didn't really register the reality of it all until the riot police charged us to get us off the bridge. That was actual terror, seeing riot police charging with batons."

Holt and her friends made it across the October Bridge, which later became a focal point of the riots and began looking for a way back to Zamalek where they were staying.

The group walked down the east side of the Nile River, trying to find another bridge, Holt said.

"It was quiet walking down the street where people were sitting on benches and walking," she said.

The next bridge they came to was too crowded, and the group continued walking for 30 more minutes until they found another route home.

Holt said as they were walking through the streets, Egyptians would come up to them and just want to talk and spread the word about the protests.

"They just wanted to tell us why they were there," Holt said. "Egyptians, protestors were so helpful. They would point to hotels and help us where we needed to go. I was actually comfortable around those people."

Even though the final bridge was taken over by protestors, they were still able to cross and get back to their dorms.

"Tear gas still drifted in the air," Holt said. "Even the little I breathed was brutal."

Despite the riots, Holt still feels secure at the American University in Cairo. She said that the area she is staying in is very upscale, with numerous embassies and houses.

"I'd rather not leave. I like it here," Holt said. "I'm afraid if I stay here they'll send me back to America."

The United States Department of State issued a voluntary departure, meaning the they will assist Americans wishing to leave Egypt, but a mandatory evacuation of all Americans has not yet been ordered.

Felix Wang, director of JMU Study Abroad, said the university is ensuring the three students are safe and then will work with them to help them figure out how they want to continue their study abroad experience.

"We don't want to force them to come back to the U.S.," Wang said. "Depending on their decision, we can help them come home to campus or go to another country to study."

"They're being advised to stay in the dorms and not go out," Wang said. "If they stay on the university property they're pretty safe."

Holt plans to leave Egypt until the situation calms.

"We are getting away from the area, we're just not going back to America," Holt said.

While Holt travels, her parents are waiting for the next time they will hear from their daughter.

"It's like a roller coaster," said a tearful Mark over the phone. "It's definitely a little scary."

According to Al-Jazeera English, more than 150 people have been killed in the protests as of Sunday evening.

An Egyptian American's Response

When Dalia Desouky, an Egyptian-American and a student studying at JMU, first heard of the protests, she was excited.

"Everyone was well aware of the corruption," said the freshman international affairs major. "I thought, this is definitely it, it's finally going to be a change."

Desouky was born in the United States but has many friends and family in Egypt. As the week progressed, and the riots got more violent, Desouky became worried about their safety.

"They have nowhere to go," she said. "People are taking advantage of everything happening."

A friend of Desouky's, who lives in Egypt, had her home attacked and her family's other home was burned down.

"I was upset that something like a revolution that was supposed to be really good turned into something harmful," Desouky said.

People have stolen all of the merchandise from malls in Cairo and burned buildings, Desouky said.

Due to the riots, the government imposed a curfew for all residents in Cairo.

"Everyone has to stay in their apartments," she said. "There is no telling when they will be attacked, so they just have to wait."

In the next week, Desouky hopes that Mubarak will step down.

"Had he really cared for the country, he would have done that," she said.

Holt said the mood and tension is Cairo is getting worse and more angry as Mubarak has not responded to the six-day protests. As the military takes greater control to make the protesters subside, all Holt and others can do is to continue to spread the message of the protesters and remain out of harm's way.

Contact Molly Haas at haasmr@dukes.jmu.edu or John Sutter at breezenews@gmail.com.