UC Davis Study Abroad students were evacuated from Egypt this July when General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian military removed President Mohamed Morsi from office and suspended the Egyptian constitution.
The study abroad program in Cairo, Egypt, titled “Something Old, Something New,” was first approved in 2011, when Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year rule in Egypt was ended and Morsi became the country’s first democratically elected president. This past summer, the “Something Old, Something New” students witnessed the protests leading up to and on the one-year anniversary of Morsi’s election. The students also witnessed the sudden end of Morsi’s presidency.
“It seemed like the Fourth of July. Everyone was in the streets just celebrating the whole time I was there,” said Jonny Goh, a fourth-year history major with a minor in Middle East/South Asia studies (ME/SA).
Goh participated in the Egyptian study abroad program this past summer, and described the protests in June as having a demographic not unlike the Occupy movement back home.
“The Egyptian protest was more of a coalition of people who had issues with Morsi, and that included a lot of pro-Mubarak protesters too,” Goh said. “There were protesters marching alongside the police and the military. Everyone was chanting anti-Morsi slogans, but everyone was also chanting very patriotic slogans.”
Goh’s classmate Caity Tremblay, a third-year comparative literature major with an emphasis in Middle Eastern studies, agreed that there was a noticeable political energy in Cairo throughout their stay.
“There was a feeling in the city that politics were happening,” Tremblay said. “You could feel that people were anxious and were talking about it, and there were flags everywhere.”
UC Davis’ comparative literature and ME/SA professor Noha Radwan, who created and led the “Something Old, Something New” program, was able to carry out their scheduled plans with only minor adjustments for the first two weeks.
“The students went to the pyramids, the museum and the center of the Islamic city,” Radwan said. “We stayed in a particularly safe residential neighborhood, so the students were neither bored nor out on their own where they might face unsafe or difficult situations.”
Though Goh was familiar with the political events in Egypt in 2011, he stated that he wasn’t expecting the magnitude of events that occurred during his own stay.
“I started to realize it on the plane ride over when I was talking to an Egyptian woman,” Goh said. “I’d heard about the protests but I didn’t realize what they were going to become.”
On June 30, nearly two weeks into the program, and the one-year anniversary of Morsi’s election, millions of protesters reportedly took to Egypt’s streets. Tens of thousands were in Tahrir Square, not far from the UC Davis students, who were housed in Zamalek, an island connected to Tahrir by a bridge.
Both Goh and Tremblay stated that Zamalek’s streets that day were unusually quiet.
“It was interesting, because there always seemed like there was a life to Cairo — as soon as you landed you could tell that it was different. There was noise, there was honking and there was chatter,” Goh said.
Tremblay agreed that the silence was strange, and said that many of the shops were locked up and people were staying inside.
The next day, according to Goh, was a celebration.
“People were offering each other tea on the streets,” Goh said. “There was no hint of violence that I could see.”
After checking Western news however, Goh felt like the media inaccurately portrayed Egypt as a country on fire with violence.
On July 3, when General al-Sisi removed President Morsi from power and suspended the Egyptian constitution, plans were already underway to evacuate to UC Davis students.
Professor Radwan and the staff back in California decided it was time to terminate the program after President Morsi gave a speech on July 2 refusing to step down.
“I could see that there was going to be a confrontation and a potential for violence,” Radwan said. “Travel plans were made in less than 12 hours and the students were notified early on the morning of July 3.”
Despite the tension in the city at that time, Radwan said that they arranged to be safely driven to their last field trip.
“We visited the Citadel of Saladin and the 19th century mosques of Mohamed Ali. That night we all had dinner together and stayed up until it was time to go to the airport,” Radwan said.
The airport was on the other side of Cairo, and Tremblay recounted that when they got on the bus to leave on July 4 at 2 a.m., there were people on the streets celebrating.
“I think there were more fireworks on July 4 in Cairo than there were in California,” Tremblay said.
Though the students said, in program evaluations, that they never felt like they were in danger, Radwan maintains that their evacuation was a wise decision.
When Radwan’s proposal for a study abroad program in Egypt was first approved in January 2011, Egypt had just started its revolutionary uprisings against Mubarak’s regime.
“Rather than detracting from my wish to lead a summer program in a country undergoing such political turmoil, I felt that this was an especially valuable opportunity for the students to witness historical events and to gain an in-depth understanding of what was going on in Egypt,” Radwan said.
Though she made many contingency plans with the staff at UC Davis and the UC Education Abroad Program, she and the students were able to complete all of their field trips and talk to authors, activists and journalists.
Though it was cut short, Radwan said that this year was academically similar in some ways.
“The students were able to see the preparation of a massive wave of protests. This allowed for long discussions on the course of political developments and the reasons for the protests,” Radwan said.
Tremblay said that the protests made her more aware of and more interested in the political events, and that after they left, Professor Radwan stayed and they were able to keep in touch with her.
“I felt sad because even though I know a lot of people felt that [Morsi] was oppressive, he was a president and he was elected,” Tremblay said. “I’m afraid that this is going to become the old regime.”
Goh similarly felt like the protest and its protesters had been hijacked.
“I’ve started to feel like it’s back to square one, because who’s really calling the shots now? It’s the military and the police. It’s the pro-Mubarak regime,” Goh said. “These are the same pro-Mubarak people in power now that the Egyptians got rid of back in 2011.”
NAOMI NISHIHARA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.