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University News

Students evacuate Egypt

News Editor
Monday, January 31, 2011

Two Brown students studying abroad in Alexandria, Egypt through a Middlebury College program are being evacuated today from the country by plane in light of the ongoing violent protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

“All 22 students studying with Middlebury’s program in Alexandria, Egypt, have made it safely to the Alexandria airport, which is secure and guarded by the army,” wrote Middlebury’s Dean of International Programs Jeff Cason Sunday, in a statement on Middlebury’s website. “We expect that the students will be leaving the Alexandria airport tomorrow, and that their first stop outside Egypt will be Athens, from where students will travel back to the United States.”

The Middlebury program — a Brown-approved alternate study-abroad option — decided to evacuate the students and stop the program, given the

continued volatility of the situation in Egypt, according to another statement released Saturday by Michael Geisler, vice president for language schools, schools abroad and graduate programs at Middlebury.

Michael Dawkins ’12 and Amanda Labora ’12 — the Brown students studying in Egypt this semester — could not be contacted due to the virtual blackout of the internet and cell phones. Landline usage has been at least partly restored, allowing communication with the United States.

The program has been in contact with parents of the students and in touch with the program in Egypt through limited landline use.

Protests against Mubarak’s 30-year rule began last Tuesday, largely spurred on by social networking sites and coverage from Al-Jazeera, an international news station located in the Middle East. The protests escalated Friday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as civilians continued to retaliate against police forces.

Protests at this level are “virtually nonexistent” in the Middle East due to the enforcement of the police state in the region, said Melani Cammett, director of Brown’s Middle East studies program and associate professor of political science. “The military is the backbone of the state,” she added.

The protests are grounded in frustration over the economic conditions in Egypt, where about 50 percent of people live on less than $2 a day under a corrupt government system, Cammett said. But the current economic conditions alone did not cause the eruption of protests 30 years after Mubarak took office, she added. A combination of factors — including the recent overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and the influence of social media and Al-Jazeera — all fueled the intensity of the protests.

The overthrow of the government in Tunisia was “utterly shocking,” Cammett said, since Tunisia is an even stronger police state than Egypt. Cammett, who has spent years living in countries throughout the Middle East, said she was less surprised when the protests broke out in Egypt due to the success in Tunisia and the response of the police who eventually backed down, rather than stomping out resistance. While there were localized protests in Tunisia covered by the Human Rights Watch in 2008, protests “on a national scale with this much energy and violence” are largely unprecedented, she added.

Social networking energized protesters until the government shutdown of the internet. Sydney Silverstein ’12, who studied at the American University in Cairo last semester, said she started to see hints that something might happen through her Egyptian Facebook friends about a week ago.

“There was a lot of activity from people I still know in Egypt,” Silverstein said, including initial postings about the protests.

Silverstein lived only 10 minutes away from Tahrir Square by car last year, taking the 6th of October Bridge — one of the epicenters of this week’s turmoil — to get to classes in the city.

“We literally were just there,” Silverstein said, adding that it is shocking to “see the bridges we crossed, the buildings we were in.” She said she witnessed resentment against the government, particularly after parliamentary elections appeared rigged against the opposition party, but she did not expect the protests to happen.

Andrew Leber ’12, who studied in Alexandria through the same program as the two Brown students currently there, said “people thought things would change someday, but no one knew how.”

But last week, he said Facebook friends began writing about “some type of revolution.” He added that this all occurred before “everyone cut out on Facebook” due to government blackout of social networking sites.

On Sunday, the Al-Jazeera office in Cairo was also shut down by the government, although Al-Jazeera correspondent Dan Nolan tweeted that they would continue to find ways to give updates, according to the Huffington Post.

Leber has been coordinating with students involved in the program last semester to send e-mails with their thoughts and prayers to the students currently in Alexandria.

Middlebury did not immediately decide to evacuate the students. On Friday, Middlebury released a statement saying Saturday’s classes were cancelled with the potential to resume the following week. But when Saturday came, Middlebury announced the evacuation. The safety protocol is carried out by the school sponsoring the program, wrote Kendall Brostuen, director of international programs at Brown and associate dean of the College, in an e-mail to The Herald. He added that Brown has been in close contact with both Middlebury and the families of the students in Egypt.

The U.S. Embassy recently released an advisory recommending Americans leave Egypt, according to the Associated Press.

Mubarak still holds power in Egypt, though he has fired other government officials and replaced them with new leadership. Cammett said this is a “standard” move by the government, meant as an attempt to “pick a scapegoat and continue with business as usual.” But she said it appears that the Egyptian people are not buying it this time.

The protest does not appear to have been started by the opposition parties in Egypt, though notable resistance leaders, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, have expressed their support.

“This is clearly a youth protest,” she said, noting that “at a certain point you have nothing left to lose” as many Egyptians cannot even afford to get married.

Cammett said she could not predict the outcome, but added, “Each moment that it continues and each confrontation is another step in what seems like a tipping point.”

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