“About 10,000 people were in Tahrir Square,” Jeremy Hodge, a fourth-year Middle Eastern studies major, said. “I eventually got drawn into the front and got exposed to tear gas. A friend of mine got hit with rubber bullets. That was the first time I saw police brutality. I remember one guy in particular had been running away from the cops and had been badly bruised, had collapsed right next to me and several other [people] helped escort him away and get him water. After that, police brutality became routine.”
Hodge and four other UCSB students studying abroad in Egypt found themselves swept into the turmoil last month when 18 days of unraveling political conflict ended President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship. Following the release of a U.S. State Dept. travel advisory for the area, the students had their studies cut short and were relocated temporarily to Barcelona on Feb. 1. They were a semester into their year-long program at the American University in Cairo — located about 45 minutes by car from Tahrir Square. Since their evacuation, three of the students returned to California, while two opted to transfer to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
This is their story:
The “Rage Revolution” Begins
Spurred by mass protests in Tunisia that led to the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, demonstrations erupted across the Middle East, sparking in Egypt on Jan. 25. Tens of thousands of protesters assembled in Cairo that day, demanding the end of President Mubarak’s regime.
UCSB students Hodge and Sophie Tahran along with alumnus Brendan Geck were present in Tahrir Square for the first day of protests. Geck and Hodge were rooming together near Tahrir Square on the island of Zamalek and initially intended to watch the protests from afar. However, Geck said, they ultimately became immersed in the conflict.
“It was primarily peaceful for the first four hours we were there, maybe around 4:30, 5 p.m., [when] tensions began to build between the protesters and police,” Geck said in a webcam interview.
The conflict escalated when police began firing tear gas and rubber bullets and using batons, shields and water hoses to push back the demonstrators. Thousands of people then began rushing the police. Geck was hit with rubber pellets when he approached the protesters to take pictures of the scene.
Hodge said he was stunned that Egyptians were so resolute in their demands.
“I was shocked by the Egyptians’ courage and ability to pull this off, as up until now most people, including myself and most Egyptians, had characterized Egyptians as incredibly apathetic,” Hodge said in a Facebook message. “Until all this, that was kind of their reputation in the Middle East amongst other Arab nationalities.”
Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian human rights activist and outreach director for the American Islamic Congress, said she was happy to discover the strength of her countrymen.
“Before the protests started, we were hopeful, but never thought that it would come true,” Ziada said from Egypt via Skype. “On the first day, everyone was surprised by the huge number of crowds. There are so many people that tend to be passive. Now there are no passive people anymore.”
Hodge said the country’s volatile economic and political climate, brusquely handled by the same dictator for three decades, had steeped tensions among the Egyptian people.
“In addition to the fact that there is high unemployment caused by the fact that after graduating from college … they are unable to find jobs because most people attain degrees in useless fields such as [pharaonic] history (in Egypt, the government chooses your major based off some test), high food prices and ridiculously high levels of corruption — politically the last round of parliamentary elections were more rigged than usual,” he said.
“Day of Revolt”
Three days in, protests took a drastically violent turn. With media reporting over 20 protesters killed that day and dozens more injured, the Egyptian military felt compelled to intervene.
“It started to look more like a war zone,” Geck said. “The military stepped in on Friday [Jan. 28]. That’s when the prospect of a revolution began to be possible.”
That same day, the government blocked internet access and cell phone service to the majority of the country.
Tahran, a third-year global studies major, witnessed pandemonium on the fourth day of demonstrations. She visited Tahrir Square as she returned from the train station that day and found herself trapped. Tahran said she tried to leave the square as struggles escalated between protesters and police, but her exit routes were blocked.
“I tried to get on the metro and my stop wasn’t working,” she said in a webcam interview. “I went to another stop and that wasn’t functioning either. Police were blocking the bridge that would allow me to get home. As we walked closer we saw that the protesters were assembled near my block.”
As tear gas spread through the air, creating clouds of white billowing smoke, she and her friend hurried to find another way to their off-campus apartment.
“Tear gas was being blown by the wind toward us,” she said. “We were luckily able to cross another bridge. We found a cab driver who was willing to take us home through the back streets.”
Tahran said she saw authorities being carried away by protesters and an apartment lit on fire, undercut with a current of tear gas.
“It was mostly just people fainting because of the tear gas,” she said. “We were 300 feet away [from] the conflict and the tear gas was still affecting us.”
As Tahran and a friend struggled to get to their apartment, Geck, Hodge and their friend were escorted out of the conflict zone and sent away on a river boat by police officers. Hodge said Egyptian authorities were concerned that the American students would take pictures or cause international repercussions.
Hodge’s group sought shelter on the fourth floor of the Ramses Hilton, providing them a vantage point of the protests. However, Hodge said, the tear gas was so strong that the hotel staff forced observers off the pool deck and barricaded the hotel — locking everyone in.
Geck was separated from the group during the commotion and blocked outside the hotel. As he stumbled to find refuge, Geck said he witnessed police throwing rocks at protesters and lighting cars on fire to frame demonstrators. While dodging Molotov cocktails, he eventually found a parking lot to take shelter, struggling against pervasive tear gas.
“I had probably the worst experience of tear gas from the whole trip,” he said. “I felt pinned down for a second, then found a parking garage.”
Geck said he never feared for his life; he was afraid of getting arrested while hiding out in the garage.
“I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see, I didn’t know what was going on,” Geck said. “I had heard people say that the police were coming. That’s when you run the risk of getting arrested.”
Meanwhile, protesters broke through the barricade and rushed into the Ramses Hilton.
“They were peaceful though and mostly were just there to rest and recover from the violence which was directly outside,” Hodge said. “Throughout the day tear gas seeped into the hotel which we all eventually became used to and by 10:30 [p.m.] it was safe for us to walk home again as the protesters had beaten off the cops when they got help from the army who diffused the situation.”
As soon as he learned that the army had stepped in to protect the Egyptian people, Geck said he knew that protest had become revolution.
The Jan. 29 and Jan. 30 Demonstrations
Geoff Cloepfil, a fourth-year linguistics major, said the entire square and all of its connecting streets were filled with people and military tanks on Jan. 29, although armed forces reportedly defied Mubarak’s orders to open fire on unarmed protesters.
“People were standing on top of tanks waving flags and shouting anti-Mubarak slogans,” Cloepfil said. “At one point I saw an army officer lifted to shoulder level, parading through the square while leading people in a chant. At that point everything was still peaceful, despite the scent of tear gas still in the air from the previous day. We were evacuated … before things turned really violent.”
Most service members and police officers left the city the following day, prompting the community to close all businesses and assemble neighborhood watches for looters.
“The thing that affected me most was how people were able to come together,” Tahran said. “For a few days there was no authority at all. People stepped out to the plate and took charge. … All the men on my street stood out all night with kitchen utensils, protecting their property [and] family.”
Hodge said there were only three bridges to Zamalek island where he, Geck, Tahran and Cloepfil lived, making it easily defensible.
“At each bridge there were checkpoints manned by about 100 men, most of whom had long metal poles or machetes, but some of whom had AK-47’s and bulletproof vests,” he said via Facebook. “After curfew (4 p.m.) no women would be seen out on the streets, only these armed men, who depending on the day wear either white or yellow armbands as a way of identifying themselves as being from Zamalek.”
While students living in off-campus dorms or apartments in Zamalek were located near the heart of the protests, the rest of the student body was more removed from the conflict. Still, Elise Bell, a third-year cultural anthropology major, was living on-campus at the American University in Cairo and said she felt the revolution’s impact trickle down to the university.
“It started getting difficult getting food and water,” Bell said. “The dorms never ran out of food, but there were hour-and-a-half long lines in the supermarket. Everyone was hoarding food, in case they weren’t allowed to leave.”
Bell was visiting her family in California when the protests first erupted during the university’s winter break. She returned to Cairo two days after the protests, but was evacuated to Barcelona shortly after.
Vivian Chui, a third-year Middle Eastern studies major, on the other hand, was out of Egypt during the whole incident.
Chui said she was supposed to return to Cairo on Jan. 28 before her spring semester commenced on Jan. 31, but cancelled her flight as the protests became more violent.
She remained with her host family in Beirut, where she was traveling during the break.
Many of the students didn’t find out about their mandatory evacuation until hours before their scheduled flight on Feb. 1.
“We were pulled from Egypt completely out of the blue,” Tahran said. “I literally got a call at 3 in the morning and got picked up at 9.”
Cloepfil said he was upset by the call to evacuate.
“I was in Egypt during a revolution,” he said. “I wanted to experience it. I tried everything I could to convince them to let me stay, but in the end didn’t get to have a choice.”
After being pulled from Egypt, the students were allowed to choose whether they wanted to return to the U.S. or transfer to Israel, Turkey, Korea or Germany, to continue their studies.
Tahran said she had only 10 minutes to choose a destination. While she and Hodge chose Jerusalem, Cloepfil selected Korea. However, visa complications prevented him from travelling to Seoul. Bell and Chui returned to California and Geck decided to leave Egypt on Feb. 8 to join his friends and accept a job opportunity in Jerusalem.
As the students left Cairo, officers and “thugs” dressed in street clothes reportedly attempted to scare protesters into submission. Posing as supporters of the regime, some pro-Mubarak forces reportedly traveled on camel and horseback while firing live ammunition at anti-government protesters.
“Free at Last”
After 18 days of protests, Mubarak resigned from office on Feb. 11 and transferred power to the Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces. The interim government has since appointed a committee of legal experts to amend the Egyptian constitution so that it includes term limits on the presidency and regulates government power.
Presidential elections are prospectively scheduled for August.
Geck said he was elated by the news of Mubarak’s resignation. However, he was also upset to miss the historic event by a mere 28 hours.
Hodge said he originally thought that day would never come.
“With regards to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, if you had asked me the day before the protests began, or even a week after they had got under way if I thought it would ever happen, I would have said no,” he said on Feb. 14. “However, lately, especially in the last week, I came to expect this more and more.”
Bell said she was surprised that Mubarak stepped down without a larger fight.
“I thought he would hold out longer,” Bell said. “I really thought he would hold out until they physically removed him from the country.”
Although happy, Cloepfil said he is concerned for the country’s future.
“The majority of Egyptians I talked to wanted Mubarak to step down immediately, but had no idea of where to go from there,” Cloepfil said. “In this sort of situation, it’s so easy for another dictator to just fill the vacuum.”
Chui said she couldn’t help but adopt the Egyptian people’s cynicism about their government after her time in the country.
“Walking around the first night, police officers would roam street corners with large rifles,” Chui said. “It was never on the actual news, but I heard that someone was tortured in a police station. … As a foreigner, they treat you so well, but not when you’re an Egyptian.”
Although a final death count has not been announced, Egyptian Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid estimated on Feb. 23 that 384 people died and 6,467 sustained injuries during the 18-day conflict between civilians and police forces.
Despite this startling statistic, the demonstrations have been described as largely non-violent in nature.
Ziada, who has participated in numerous women’s rights movements, said Egyptian society has a long history of struggling for equality amidst injustice.
“I was surprised with how [the protesters] were tolerant in dealing with other groups,” Ziada said. “Although we were complaining about sexual corruption to women, there were thousands of women and thousands of men and they never got harassed. This was due to the government suppression of people.”
A strong proponent of non-violent reform, Ziada translated an American comicbook about Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful protests in Montgomery, Alab. into Arabic. Ziada and other activists distributed these comics in Tahrir Square to discourage violence. Aside from promoting peace, the pamphlets also allowed activists to reach protestors at a time when the government was censoring media outlets.
“We found great difficulty [publishing the book],” Ziada said. “Security forces here didn’t want us to have it printed. We were distributing it everywhere in the country, the Middle East as well. We give training on how to use nonviolent tactics in breaking down a dictator.”
Whether they chose to travel abroad in Egypt to enrich their Arabic language skills, study Middle Eastern relations or simply live in one of the world’s most culturally and historically rich countries, the students present during the protests watched history unfold before their eyes. Regardless of what lessons they took with them, the students said they would never forget the Egyptian people, whom they described as compassionate, hospitable and joyful.
“We learned about the lack of political process that exists, the type of underlying conflict that exists when people are unable to express themselves through elections,” Geck said. “I had never seen people that excited, that passionate.”
As they witnessed the collapse of a dictatorship and learned about the slew of revolts that erupted in the Middle East as a result, the students said they fully grasped their generation’s ability to initiate change.