Revolutionary road: Student evacuated from Egypt

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February 3, 2011

10:12 PM

John Pence ’12 received a text message Monday night, Jan. 24, from Alain Abdel Malek, a young Egyptian he had recently met during a night out in Cairo, Egypt.

The text was simple: “Hey, don’t go out tonight, it should be pretty wild.”

Pence stayed in and went to bed.

That warning kept Pence safe from the first night of protests in Egypt’s capital city. A week after the text, the College of William and Mary’s lone study abroad student in Egypt was evacuated to Istanbul, Turkey, before flying back to the United States Wednesday.

Since Jan. 25, thousands of Egyptian citizens have demonstrated in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other major cities, demanding legal and political reforms including free elections and free speech. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, has also come under fire, with many of the protesters calling for the embattled leader to step down and clashing with pro-regime demonstrators.

“I was eating lunch one day, and I heard the crowds coming,” Pence said. “I stuck my head out and the whole crowd was coming into the neighborhood. They were pretty loud and pretty angry.”

Last Monday night’s protests escalated last Tuesday and Wednesday. Telephones were silenced last Thursday, and the Egyptian government cut the internet access last Friday.

By Saturday morning, Pence was ready to leave. As a Spanish-speaker, he rushed to the nearby Spanish Embassy in Cairo at 7 a.m., when the previous night’s curfew was over, to find out what to do next. Embassy officials advised Pence to get out of the country. With no cell phone service, Pence called his parents at home in Indiana from the local Flamengo Hotel to arrange travel home.

“It was definitely frightening,” Pence said. “I speak a little Arabic, but I didn’t know enough about that part of the world to really figure out what was going on. I just tried to stay clear.”

The American University in Cairo, where Pence was studying, ordered students to evacuate Friday. However, many of his Egyptian friends felt that Americans were invincible to the violence.

“Several people would say ‘You’re American, you are fine; if they touch you they will have serious problems,’” he said. “But then there was a concern that if it became an anti-American sentiment we could be in trouble.”

Pence stayed in daily contact with Malek throughout the week of protests.

“We would talk every day, and he would keep me posted on what to do and what not to do,” he said.

Malek, a young doctor, later evacuated the country as well.

“Even Egyptians wanted to get the hell out,” Pence said.

At the College, Sylvia Mitterndorfer, director of global studies of the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies, helped Pence coordinate his evacuation from Cairo.

“William and Mary worked with me throughout the entire process,” Pence said. “[Sylvia] was up with me at one point when I was just trying to get things figured out — it was 2 a.m. in the U.S.”

The College encourages students studying in Egypt to purchase emergency evacuation insurance.

“When I bought the insurance, I thought that it was ridiculous, but I guess it is better to be safe than sorry,” he said.

Pence’s mother put the insurance plan to good use, calling her son at 5 a.m. Wednesday to let him know he had a 9 a.m. flight out of Istanbul. After connecting through Paris and Atlanta, he landed safely in Indianapolis Wednesday night.

Pence’s study abroad experience is over. But there is little doubt it was ‘pretty wild’.

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