George Mason University student Matthew Wilchek, set to study in Cairo before the protests, took this picture from a bus on the way to Cairo International Airport on Jan. 29. Photo By Matthew Wilchek

For George Mason University junior Matthew Wilchek, Egypt seemed like an excellent place to go for a semester abroad.

Wilchek, a global affairs major and Middle East studies minor, was in Egypt when protests against Hosni Mubarak’s government began in January.

The Egyptian protests followed demonstrations in Tunisia seeking the removal of autocratic ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Egyptian protesters fought against Mubarak’s dictatorship, citing a lack of freedom of speech and elections, police brutality and governmental corruption, which eventually lead to Mubarak handing control to Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces on Feb. 11.

Wilchek arrived in Egypt a few days before the start of the revolution as a foreign exchange student. He was set to begin classes at American University in Cairo when the protests began.

Arrival in Egypt

On Jan. 21, Wilchek arrived at Cairo International Airport at 6 p.m. Immediately, he began to experience a sense of culture shock.

“Right away, I thought it was surreal that I was in Egypt,” Wilchek said. “Traffic would make a three lane highway into four lanes. Cars were inches away from hitting other cars. It’s normal for everyone to honk at everything. If you do that here, I feel like everyone would get annoyed.”

When Wilchek arrived at his dorm in Zamalek, located about five miles from downtown Cairo, he discovered a point system corresponding to student rules.
“If you get seven points worth of violations, you’re kicked out of the dorms,” Wilchek said. “You get two points for any kind of public display of affection — a hug from the opposite sex, holding hands, a kiss on the cheek, anything. You get three points for having any kind of alcohol even if you’re of age.”

Wilchek said some students discussed going to a club, but decided against it when they found out they would receive four points for public intoxication. He said if someone stole something they would receive seven points, and if someone was found in the dorm hall for the opposite gender, they would be expelled.

“I said, I’m here to learn the culture and take classes, not to party,” Wilchek said. “I can live with that.”

Wilchek said the first few days in Egypt were calm. He began adjusting to Cairo where he would begin his new academic life.

The protests begin

“Around Wednesday [Jan. 24], rumors were spreading that there were going to be protests in downtown Cairo by the 25th,” Wilchek said. “People were saying it wouldn’t be bad. There was a trip to the Pyramids planned for the 26th that we were excited for.”

Wilchek went downtown with a friend on the morning of Jan. 25 and encountered “hundreds of cops in riot gear with shields and helmets [who] were blockading a whole bunch of streets.

“We went to orientation and as we were coming back, you could see hundreds of people massing in the streets,” Wilcheck said.

When Wilchek returned to the dorm, there were new rumors abound — phone and Internet services were going to be shut off soon and the trip to the Pyramids was canceled.

“I was getting worried,” Wilchek said. “Others wanted to go downtown, but I didn’t want to go and get shoved or hit or stoned. I called my parents and told them that I might not have phone or Internet for the next few days.”

Wilchek contacted AUC and requested a dorm room on campus, located much further from downtown Cairo than Zamalek. A new space was found for Wilchek within an hour.

By Jan. 26, the revolution was in full swing.

“Friday, the 26th, they shut off the internet and phones,” Wilchek said. “The university implemented a curfew. Nobody could leave the dorm building area all day. I was grateful I moved because in Zamalek I would only be able to go out of my room and down to the lobby whereas at the university, I could walk around campus, play basketball and use the sports facilities.”

“The Egyptians I encountered, the locals in the dorms at AUC, were quite apologetic to international students for what was happening,” Wilchek said. “Some of them came to me as I left and tried to convince me to stay, but I said it was too crazy.”

Wilchek said his Egyptian peers asked if he was going to return after the revolution. He said there was a common sentiment among them, that it was “a great time for Egyptians to stand up and do what was right for them.” He said he didn’t encounter Mubarak supporters anywhere but on local television.

Wilchek said food supplies on campus began to run low over the weekend.

“In the beginning they had all kinds of food and drink, but after a couple of days, you could only pick water, tea and coffee,” Wilchek said.

Classes were supposed to begin Jan. 28, but were pushed back to Feb. 2.

“I’m locked in my dorm room, I have no class, we’re running out of food and the banks aren’t open, so if I run out of money, I’ll be screwed,” Wilchek said. “Finally around Sunday, the international phones came on so I could call my parents and tell them that everything was going OK.”

Evacuation from Egypt

Wilchek’s parents recommended that he leave Egypt.

“I told my parents I wanted to stay and wait it out because I mostly went to Egypt for my major, global affairs concentrating in Middle Eastern studies, and I thought it would look really good on a resume if I stayed,” Wilchek said.

Wilchek said his parents urged him to contact the U.S. Embassy to try to secure a way out of the country before conditions deteriorated further.

“Later in the evening [Sunday], the U.S. Embassy said they may not be able to guarantee a way out of the country after Thursday [Feb. 3],” Wilchek said. “When I told my parents that, they said they wanted me home now.”

On Monday, Jan. 29, the U.S. Embassy announced an evacuation plan. Charter flights would depart from Cairo Airport.

“They were organizing trips to the airport that day, and they said I should pack immediately,” Wilchek said. “The airport was getting really backed up with people trying to leave.”

Wilchek left AUC on Monday and took a bus to the airport.

“I saw 20 army tanks patrolling the highways. If you weren’t in Tahrir Square and were just walking around the streets on your own, you were going to get arrested,” Wilchek said. “They had checkpoints and army tanks, and they had soldiers with machine guns and jeeps with turrets on them.”

During his time at AUC, Wilchek watched the protests on local television. Protesters were filmed throwing Molotovs at the authorities. The media announced that Mubarak had sent out police officers dressed like civilians into the crowds, equipped with police batons.

Wilchek arrived at the airport to find the U.S. Embassy using a private terminal to organize flights out of Cairo.

“There were a thousand people waiting outside the terminal,” Wilchek said. “The line was humongous. Homeland Security was in red shirts and they said [to] get in the back of the line.”

American citizens leaving on the flights were only allowed one carry-on bag and one suitcase. The maximum weight for the suitcase was 44 pounds, so people were forced to take out their clothing and layer up or else face the prospect of sending their belongings back to the United States through the mail, Wilchek said.

“I left half my wardrobe in Egypt,” Wilchek said. “They said AUC was supposed to mail it, but I have yet to receive anything.”

Wilchek waited in line for nine hours without food. Homeland Security passed out water bottles, but no food.

“The majority of people in line weren’t students,” Wilchek said. “They were mostly retired couples there touring or families of Homeland Security employees.”

Wilchek said at one point, six sport utility vehicles drove up to the front of the line. Eight to 12 people wearing bulletproof vests and carrying assault rifles got out and escorted two people in suits to the front of the line.

“The body guards were glaring at everyone in line and were ready to shoot us,” Wilchek said. “I was getting really scared. I thought of Call of Duty when the airport gets shot up — they looked like those people.”

Wilchek flew to Istanbul that night and was separated from most of his group. Many students decided to use the time to travel in Europe, but Wilchek decided to come back to the United States because he could still complete his semester at Mason and study abroad next year.

Back at Mason

“I really want to say that I give a lot of credit and thanks to the Global Education Program we have here,” Wilchek said. “Without the Global Education Office, I may not have been easily able to come back to Mason. They were on top of their game.”

Wilchek spoke to representatives from the office every day as he worked out his return to Mason. He is now back and attending classes on the Fairfax campus.
“When I came back and went to my first day of classes, someone was trying to advertise the study abroad program at Oxford,” Wilchek said. “She said every student who went loved it, but I raised my hand and said it wasn’t really for me. She said I was probably the only one.”