January 31, 2011

Amid Growing Protests, Witte ’12 Flees Egypt

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Carolyn Witte ’12 arrived in Prague, Czech Republic, early Tuesday morning following a nerve-wracking 40-hour effort to leave Egypt.

After protests against the Egyptian government intensified this weekend, the director of Witte’s study abroad program decided that she and other students studying in Alexandria needed to evacuate. But, as the students tried to avoid looters and men with guns, their departure was impeded by a lack of flights and limited communication.

“It was more like a crawl back to the U.S. than an evacuation,” said Witte, who is a Sun columnist. “It was a very helpless situation.”

Witte and several other students — all of whom lived in Alexandria University dorms as part of a Middlebury College study abroad program — left their dorm on Saturday morning thinking they were going to take a charter flight to Athens. But the flight never departed.

Instead, the students had to return to their building as the protests continued to intensify. Witte said Saturday night — the students’ last in Alexandria — was “extremely frightening.”

After nightfall on Saturday, the women in Witte’s all-female dorm were told to turn off their lights to stay out of sight of armed men outside the building, she said. A “man with a stick” stood outside the dorm through the night to provide protection for the students, she said. Most of the students in the dorm had already returned home, leaving Witte and about a dozen other women alone in the building on Saturday.

The dorm was in the center of the protests, Witte said, and there were cars on fire, tear gas and gun shots outside her window.

On Sunday, the American director of Witte’s program managed to hail a bus, and the students returned to the airport. The airport was “hellish,” with no food or water, Witte said, but the students were relieved that they were farther away from the protests.

In a statement on Sunday, Middlebury assured worried parents that the airport, Borg el Arab, was “secure and guarded by the army.”

After an “exasperating” 40-hour wait, the students finally boarded a charter plane, which was organized by Middlebury, and flew to Prague.

The U.S. government began organizing flights to evacuate Americans from Egypt on Monday. The U.S. Embassy issued a statement Monday urging all Americans to “consider leaving as soon as they can safely do so.”

However, most of the U.S. evacuation flights left from Cairo and not Alexandria, Witte said.

The effort to leave Egypt was “insane — completely dysfunctional in every possible way,” she said.

The protests began last Tuesday as thousands of Egyptians filled the streets to demand an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The demonstrations grew throughout the week and included several violent clashes between protesters and police.

When the protests started, Witte said she and the other students were excited to observe the situation. But they became nervous once the Egyptian government restricted Internet and phone service in the country.

“We were really isolated and on our own,” she said.

The students became more scared once looters and people brandishing guns began appearing on the streets, Witte said. The students did not have any security, but the Egyptian people “really risked their lives to protect us,” she said.

Witte said she and the other students would soon return to the U.S., but they were uncertain when they would arrive. After studying in Egypt for only three weeks, she said she does not know whether she will stay on campus, study abroad again, or do something else for the rest of the semester.

Witte was the only student studying abroad in Egypt through Cornell Abroad this semester, but she was not the only Cornellian in the country.

Alexandra Woodhouse ‘12 was working in Cairo, but was stuck in the Cairo airport Monday night as she tried to leave the country, Witte said. A law student is also studying in the country, but the student’s name was not available at press time.

Original Author: Michael Linhorst