Students at a Front Row for a Revolution

Duke Engage participants recall their experiences during a tumultuous June in Egypt

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Caption: Duke Engage students in front of some of the plentiful political graffiti in Egypt. Photo: Duke Engage in Cairo blog

What happens to a Duke Engage program studying abroad when a revolution breaks out?

You share the euphoria with the local employees at a Pizza Hut. You join with a cab driver in shouting cheers to every passerby. You watch the TV news with excitement and call your parents.

But ultimately, you go home with regret, knowing you're leaving behind a new set of friends and colleagues who have to deal with the consequences.

That was the experience of nearly a dozen Duke Engage in Cairo students who had a front row seat this past June during a series of tumultuous days of popular protests and military action that led to the removal of President Mohammad Morsi.

The students came back together Wednesday afternoon to discuss their experiences at the Franklin Center.  They described their wide-eyed excitement of the first weeks of the program, during which they combined travel to the pyramids and other sights with academic study and service work including working with orphans at Egyptian non-governmental organizations and teaching their Egyptian peers English. 

The students said they little noticed the rising unrest under Morsi, who following his election had grabbed wide powers for the presidency and concentrated power within his Muslim Brotherhood party, refusing calls to reach out to other, more secular parties who represented other elements of the coalition that had launched the Egyptian uprising of 2011.

"There were rumblings going on all around us in the background," said Anand Raghuraman. "When we first arrived, we were so excited, we weren't all that aware of what was going on. But we started to notice 630 [representing June 30, a day of planned protests] painted all over the place. We saw Wanted signs with Morsi's face on it. Then our students started talking with us, asking us what we thought of Morsi.  And one morning we came out of the Metro and we saw large groups of people drumming and carrying Egyptian flags and asking people to sign petitions calling for Morsi's resignation."

They also saw the other side -- the Morsi supporters.  Many of the students were taking Arabic language classes, and many of these instructors were pro-Morsi. Thao Nguyen said she started to understand the stakes when one of the instructors told her class "he was willing to give his life for the sake of the Muslim Brotherhood."

The students said they held several vigorous discussions about democracy that had them rethinking their own beliefs about what constitutes democracy. Morsi, they agreed, was elected in what was the most fair presidential election in modern Egypt history, yet the students saw wide-spread anger at his actions and many people were saying that he had to be removed to keep the promise of the Egyptian uprising alive.

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When the June 30 protests came, the Duke Engage students were about to start mid-semester break and for their safety spent it at the resort city of Sharm el Skeikh. Several students said they expected the protests would die out and they would return to Cairo to finish the program.

But during the first week of July, events intervened.  Raghuraman was in a Pizza Hut eating a meal when an Egyptian came running into the establishing calling for the employees to change the channels on the television.

"They changed the channel to a general at a news conference. Suddenly there was all of this energy in the room. All the people making pizzas stopped what they were doing and came out of the kitchen to watch.  Finally when he announces that Morsi was gone, there was this tremendous explosion of people clapping.  I changed my order to 'to go,' grabbed a cab and just started writing down what I saw and heard on the pizza box just to capture what was going on at that moment."

Tessa Deardorff was in a market in an opposite part of the city.  Suddenly a shopkeeper started speaking "in rapid-fire Arabic."

"He was screaming 'Morsi's Gone! Morsi's Gone.' And there was so much happiness."

Raghuraman noted a distinct difference in media coverage. CNN and most of American television portrayed it as a military coup.  "But we couldn't understand that at the time," he said.  "That's what shocked me.  Everybody around us saw it as the military expressing the people's will."

The months since Morsi's removal have cast a somber tone over Egyptian politics, the students said.  The military launched a wide crackdown on both secular activists, including some of the heroes of the 2011 uprising, as well as Muslim Brother supporters, recently sentencing 528 of them to death. Nguyen said she wondered what has happened to her Muslim Brotherhood instructor.

Raghuraman said many of the Duke students have stayed in touch with Egyptian friends through Facebook, and "the euphoria" that many of those friends were swept up in has since worn off.

The students said the decision to bring them back early from Egypt was disappointing but was the correct decision. It was particularly hard on the students who worked at the orphanage. "We never got a chance to say goodbye to the kids," Nguyen said. "I wasn't ready to go."

But all also said the experience was exhilarating and had changed them.  "Every class I'm taking this semester is connected to what I did in Egypt," said Courtney Murray.

The students kept a blog during their adventures in Egypt.  Their postings can be read here.