Students in Egypt set to return after protests erupt

On Jan. 25, tens of thousands of protestors gathered in Cairo demanding that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak step down after a 30-year regime.

Among about 300 American students in Cairo at the time were two from Geneseo; junior Elizabeth Barber and senior Tanvir Kalam were studying at the American University at Cairo through a SUNY Cortland study abroad program.

"Cortland's study abroad office has been doing a marvelous job keeping everyone informed," said Wes Kennison, a faculty fellow for the International Programs office.

Students living in Cairo were gathered back in the dormitories with guards stationed around the building when the protests began. Danger seemed minimal at first; Internet access was still available and students were in good spirits.

On Jan. 28, pressure began rising in Egypt as Internet access and cell phone services were cut off. That same day, Mubarak named Omar Suleiman, Egypt's head of military intelligence, to the vice presidency, and designated Air Force Chief Ahmed Shafik as the new prime minister. Though Mubarak ordered his government to resign, he himself did not step down.

Neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Mubarak to step down, but both have implied the loss of billions of dollars in aid Egypt receives from the United States if violent action is taken against the protestors.

"It's not what is happening that worries us – it's what very likely could happen very quickly," Kennison said. "As things progressed, it became increasingly apparent that [the protesters] weren't going to quiet down soon."

The main concern is what might happen if Mubarak does step down.

The army's involvement did help stabilize the situation, Kennison said, but the people of Egypt coming into the streets are desperate and "united in hatred for Mubarak." If he were to step down, there could be a lot of potential danger for everyone during the transition.

With food shortages now afflicting the country, that potential can only increase. "Hungry people behave differently," Kennison said.

On Monday, Cortland decided to pull the plug on the semester-long program. Many students, including Barber and Kalam, have expressed a reluctance to leave.

"On one hand I deeply admire that," Kennison said. "They sense that they're in the middle of history … and I think that says a lot about the two of them."

Kalam told reporters for The Chronicle of Higher Education that he and his friends witnessed a clash of the protestors with the police and that they themselves were nearly caught in a conflict until a local restaurant owner pulled them out of the fray and into safety.

Travelers are being evacuated into Europe and then flown back to the U.S. Of the 300 students evacuating, Kalam and Barber were two of the last five scheduled to leave.

The travel warning issued on Jan. 28 was replaced on Tuesday by a Department of State-ordered evacuation of all non-emergency U.S. government personnel and family members from Egypt.

It seemed that things would quiet down on Monday when Mubarak announced that he would not be running for another term as president when his term expires this fall. Although many, including Obama, are urging for a more rapid and meaningful transition, Mubarak still has a multitude of supporters.

On Wednesday, thousands of Mubarak's supporters clashed with antigovernment protestors in Cairo.

As potential dangers continue to manifest, Geneseo looks forward to seeing its students return to safety.    

"They're both showing extreme courage, but we can't wait for them to get home," Kennison said.