posted 2011-02-17 19:08:32

Study abroad program in Egypt ends hours before demonstrations start

Demonstrating against the conflict in Egypt (Daniel Szumski/The Envoy)
Demonstrating against the ocnflict in Egypt (Daniel Szumski/The Envoy)
Hunter Students Cut it Close

Study abroad program in Egypt ends hours before demonstrations start

Scott Klocksin

Staff Writer

During the winter 2010-2011 intersession, a month-long trip organized by Hunter's Education Abroad Office unwittingly brought 28 students and three faculty members within hours of a wave of unrest that has captivated the Arab world. In ypt, the uprising began with a day of demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria on Jan. 25—just one day after the official close of the winter intersession.

Most of the participants in the program left the country on Jan. 24, but two students decided to stay a few extra days in Egypt's capital city. Aryuna Tsyrenova, a Hunter senior, planned to rendezvous with her husband and her mother, who lives in Russia, to sightsee and take a break from the rigors of studying.

Tsyrenova had planned to stay in Egypt until Jan. 29, but was subjected to an unforgettable ordeal as she tried to leave the country. After walking for an hour through streets thick with the smell of tear gas, Tsyrenova, with her husband and her mother, found a taxi to take them to Cairo International Airport. As the cab snaked its way through checkpoints and barricades, often having to travel the wrong way down one-way streets, it was at times stopped and kicked by crowds of Egyptians angered by the scarcity of any means to get around. Still, Tsyrenova stressed that while the situation on the streets was tense, she didn't feel specifically targeted. “Although there were reports of looting and attacks in the richer areas of Cairo, it was... kind of peaceful – there was no aggression towards tourists,” she said.

Jamal Ali, a Distinguished Lecturer in Arabic at Hunter, participated in the program as a faculty representative. He left Egypt just before the demonstrations began, and when he returned to New York, was struck by images of Tahir Square jammed with clashing throngs of demonstrators both for and against the embattled President, Hosni Mubarak.

“What I had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around is that this was the same place I was in just a few days earlier,” he said. A far cry from the Ground Zero of upheaval that the world has come to see it as, the Square in Cairo's bustling center had been teeming with locals and tourists in a state of tenuous normalcy as recently as Jan. 24.

Relative normalcy was, in fact, a defining feature of the experience in Egypt for most participants from Hunter. The program consisted of a combination of instruction in Arabic language and Egyptian culture. Students took part in group outings around Cairo and, as with most study abroad programs, they also had free time to explore the city on their own.

Albina Khayrulina, a Hunter sophomore, said that while students remaining in Cairo after the close of the program had been warned that there would be a protest on the 25th, she had no sense that it would be the first spark of a political inferno. “There were no obvious or overt signs of 'unrest,'” she said.      “However,” she added, “some of the people we did talk to were unsatisfied with the state of affairs in Egypt, particularly the high unemployment and prices.”

The events in Egypt were set into motion by a wave of upheaval that began in the North African nation of Tunisia when a 26 year-old street vendor set himself on fire in late December in protest of harsh working conditions and a stagnant economy. This solemn act of defiance rapidly coalesced into a movement of street protests in several Arab countries and resulted in the ouster of Tunisia's President.

The timing of Hunter's program, ending as it did mere hours before the uprising began to gain its footing in Egypt, almost seems consciously orchestrated. It was not.

“I was patting myself on the back for choosing 24th as the end date of the program and jokingly asking my friends to compliment my 'clairvoyance,'” said Elizabeth Sachs, Director of Hunter's Education Abroad Office.

“This good feeling ended quickly when I found out that one of the program participants, a John Jay student, remained after the program ended to visit her family and had hard time getting out. Fortunately, she is back home by now.”

In fact, as of this writing, all of the program participants have left Egypt, though at least one had to do so by way of a flight chartered by the U.S. State Department for the express purpose of evacuating American citizens from a volatile and unpredictable political situation.

Jamal Ali, who has lived in Egypt and visits frequently, is cautiously optimistic about the future of the country. “While we remain hopeful,” he said, “we can't know for sure what's going to happen.”