Every Notre Dame student who travels abroad has a story to bring back to campus, whether it involves a visit to the Louvre, the taste of gelato, or a tour through Westminster Abbey. However, Kaitlyn Uhl and 11 other undergraduate students claim truly unique experiences, as they found themselves amidst the throes of a major political revolution.
For Uhl, a junior political science and peace studies double major, the crisis was unforeseen. “I don’t think anyone saw it coming,” Uhl said. “Before I left for Cairo, I read a few news stories about how Tunisian revolutions could influence similar protests in Egypt, but I didn’t really think it would affect me.”
What started as a movement on Facebook escalated into a full-blown uprising. A protest was scheduled to take place on January 25, which stands as a national holiday honoring the police, but the ramifications of the demonstration were severely underestimated by all. According to Uhl, “Egypt isn’t really known to show a lot of political vigor.”
“Even when we were there, no one I came into contact with seemed very concerned,” said Uhl. “The American University in Cairo even sponsored a trip to Old Cairo for January 25, the first day of the protests.” This trip to Old Cairo and Khan al-Khalili was cut short, however, as protesters swarmed into downtown Cairo to join in the revolt.
The Notre Dame contingent of students arrived in Egypt on January 20. They stayed in a dorm with 200 other students on Zamalek, an island in the Nile River, an hour’s drive from the American University in Cairo (UAC). From this vantage point, the students were able to observe the revolutionary protests that were taking place across the Nile in Tahrir Square.
The situation worsened on January 28 as the students noticed clouds of white tear gas rising from the crowds and Egyptians running from the area. That day, a curfew was installed from 6 pm to 8 am, and students were told that the Egyptian military would be enforcing it. Some students ventured out into the chaos to take some pictures of “people lighting tires on fire, running through the streets, rocking vans, breaking into shops.”
Uhl said that she choose to err on the side of caution. “It wasn’t my battle to fight, and if anything had happened to me, it would have been just a huge headache for other people,” she said.
Communication took a hit that day as well, as cellular phone and internet services were shut down nationwide. Uhl and her fellow students took turns calling their families on a landline using a phone card. At that point, it was uncertain whether classes would be continued, as they had been postponed for a week. On January 30, students learned from administrators that they were to be evacuated as soon as possible.
“Most of us freaked,” Uhl explained, “because we weren’t sure what they were planning on doing with us after that, and because we legitimately wanted to be in Cairo, and we thought the protests might still die down.”
The UAC provided bus rides to the Cairo airport, where the US state department managed an entire airport terminal to evacuate American citizens and students. The students were promptly flown to Istanbul, where they were presented with the choice of returning to the states or resuming their studies abroad in London. Seven of the students opted to travel to London but Uhl returned to campus with the other four students.
The crisis brought its fair share of disappointment to Uhl, who enjoyed her brief stay in Cairo. She reflected, “The Egyptian people really do need this revolution. Mubarek has been in power for far too long and his regime is so corrupt.” She added, “I knew that change was necessary, but at the same time it’s both ruining my study abroad and ruining the country, temporarily.”
Though Uhl acknowledges that there is a long way to go before Egypt can establish a true democracy, even after the achievement of Mubarek’s resignation, she is hopeful that the country will find the reform and stability it needs. In the meantime, Uhl has transitioned back to normal student life on campus, but with one more story to tell.
Ray Korson’s attempts to catch some rays have been thwarted by the South Bend permacloud. But every day is Ray Day with Ray. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.