Breaking all the rules, but witnessing a coup in Egypt

Tahrir Square was packed with tens of thousands of protesters Nov. 27, near the start of the latest outburst of unrest that broke out when President Mohamed Morsi granted himself broad powers. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Updated April 2, 2014

Students in foreign countries during political protests turmoil typically receive orders from universities, international organizations and even the U.S. State Department to stay away and stay safe. But that often doesn’t stop students from joining in.

With Egypt gripped by the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the country’s democratically elected leader who was forced out of power Wednesday, at least six GW students have a front-row seat.

Junior Anum Malik, who is interning at the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo, said “against everyone’s wishes” she went to the president’s palace, one of the main protest locations. The experience was the most rewarding she’s ever had, she said.

Junior Anum Malik, who is interning in Cairo this summer, attended some of the protests this week, calling them a party, despite warnings from the State Department and others to stay home and avoid the protests. Photo courtesy of Anum Malik.

“I am trying to be as smart as I can about it, though. You need to dress and act like an Egyptian, blend in, not speak English, and take a ton of Egyptian guys with you who you trust with your life,” Malik said in an email.

She said the nonprofit internship organization AIESEC told her not to leave her house June 30, but she said she thought the chance to witness the protest was too rare.

“I was not about to sit at home and watch a historic revolution happen from my TV screen while it was happening 10 minutes away,” said Malik, who is Pakistani but grew up in Virginia. “I could do that in America.”

Before attending the protests, Malik said she thought she was living in a war zone. But then saw the protests were like a “hafla,” the Egyptian word for party.

Once she arrived at the protests, Malik said she felt more comfortable, as she saw the sea of chanting, dancing, flag-waving Egyptians, yelling for Morsi to “get out.”

But the protests have not been completely peaceful.

Andrew Pochter, a Kenyon College student teaching English in Cairo, was fatally stabbed Friday. The State Department warned Americans to deter non-essential travel to Egypt. Al Jazeera reported Wednesday that nearly 100 women had been sexually assaulted in the protests.

All six GW students in Egypt this summer had been accounted for as of Tuesday, Laura Ochs, associate director for study abroad, said in an email. She said her office was working closely with the students and their programs to determine how each student should handle the situation.

Malik’s story is becoming more common as experiences abroad coincide with groundbreaking events. During Egypt’s 2011 revolution, a handful GW students braved tear gas to take part in the protests. Students there  were evacuated when more Arab Spring protests broke out.

A group of graduate business students in Turkey this year, too, saw their stay overlap with protests there, causing them to relocate.

The situations also sometimes bring up ethical situations for American students abroad about whether or not they should join protests. As one GW student told The Hatchet during Egypt’s 2011 protests: “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.”

Karin Fischer, a senior reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education who specializes in the business of international education, said universities have their own systems of determining when to pull students from countries experiencing upheaval. They usually consider warnings from the State Department and meet with universities’ risk managers and attorneys, she said.

Fischer said some students resist leaving the country at that time, and the situation becomes more complicated that when students study or work abroad through programs unaffiliated with their university.

“A couple of years ago during the Arab Spring, it happened not all at once, but rather over time the decision was made to pull students out, and I think most students did end up getting pulled out,” she said.

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