Surrounded by a mass of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, first-year graduate student Cory Ellis gripped his camera as water cannons doused thousands of Egyptians on the first day of political protests last Tuesday.
Ellis was looking to document the revolution unfolding in Egypt, but his role as a bystander was transformed when police threw tear gas canisters into the crowd.
“I was basically suffocating after I came out of it. Tear gas isn’t an instant pain, it creeps up on you. You can run away from tear gas, but it’s still on you,” said Ellis, who is in the Middle East studies graduate program.
Ellis said a group of Egyptians carried him to an alleyway, giving him smelling salts to keep him conscious.
“The Egyptian people saved my ass. They really helped me,” Ellis said. “They told me to go back to my country and tell the world.”
Unrest has engulfed the country since Jan. 25, threatening President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year hold on the nation and making Egypt the epicenter of Middle East uprisings that have swept the region from Tunisia to Yemen this month.
The protests, fueled by social media before Facebook and Twitter were shuttered by the government Friday, are in response to Egypt’s high poverty and unemployment rates, as well as torture and corruption allegations against Mubarak’s regime.
For many of the 14 GW students who have watched their semester abroad turn into a firsthand account of historic upheaval, the demonstrations mean lockdown in their apartment complexes on the outskirts of Cairo.
University spokeswoman Candace Smith said GW students are being advised to “remain in place,” while GW and program administrators in the country develop a plan to bring the students home.
“Program administrators are working to identify options to bring our students back to the United States safely and as quickly as possible,” Smith said.
The State Department reduced its diplomatic presence in Egypt Sunday, authorizing the voluntary departure of dependents of diplomats and non-essential workers, various media outlets reported. Neighboring Georgetown University is currently attempting to evacuate the students from its university out of the country.
Internet access was shut down in the country Friday, but GW is able to connect with students through landline telephones, Smith said.
“We have advised our students to take precautions to ensure their continued safety, including avoiding demonstrations and staying in close contact with their parents and program administrators,” Smith said.
Though he was advised by program organizers to stay away from the protests and police, junior Ian Goldin also took to the streets last Tuesday as an observer, but tried to avoid danger.
“I took cover that first day behind the pillar to take a photograph of a demonstration and an Egyptian walking by me told me not to be afraid. I thought that was pretty powerful and symbolic for an Egyptian to tell an American in English not to be afraid,” Goldin said.
Goldin said he “stayed a safe distance” away from the riots, but could not pass up the opportunity to watch the riots unfold.
“I didn’t come to Egypt to take classes. I can take classes at GW. I went 5,000 miles away from home to experience another part of the world and immerse myself in the culture,” he said. “I major in international affairs, so I want to experience international affairs. I didn’t want to let the chance to witness history slip by me.”
Some students in Egypt thought venturing out into the protests was too great a risk, not only for their safety but also for their role as Americans.
“We represent America no matter what we do,” Lauren Kardos, a junior, said.
Kardos said the diplomatic consequences of an American student being seriously hurt or killed in a protest would be too significant.
“It’s not our place because it’s not our fight. If you were to get hurt protesting, you would cause so much more damage for the country. It would cause more problems than it would help,” Kardos said. “You can show solidarity by hanging signs or bringing food to your Egyptian friends after they come in from protesting.”
Program directors told students to expect protests Jan. 25, a day the government designated as a holiday to celebrate a police force that Egyptians view as abusive.
“We’d been coached the whole time how to react. We know that police will chase after us and smash our cameras if we try to use it. We’ve been taught what to do, what not to do, what to take pictures of. We’ve been barred from going to the protests,” Kardos said.
While the students expected the protests, they did not anticipate the government shutdown of Internet and cell phone services that began Friday, disconnecting them from friends and family and introducing them to the world of authoritarianism.
“You understand intellectually when you live in Egypt that it’s not the United States. You don’t carry your rights and privileges with you in your luggage. But once Twitter and Facebook went down, it was sort of a slap in the face and you understood what it was like to live in a place with not as many rights,” Goldin said Thursday in a Skype interview.
As the protests continue, uncertainty pervades.
“I was thinking while I was at the protest: I don’t know the milestone for success. That’s why these protests might go on for more days, or even weeks,” Ellis said. “I think the general sentiment is that if they keep trying, then something’s going to give.”