A military tank now sits outside the Pizza Hut in Cairo where Jamie LaMontagne '11 used to order lunch last spring. Anti-government protests that have caused over 100 deaths during the past week are posing a serious threat to the five Princeton students currently studying abroad in Egypt through the Wilson School's program at the American University in Cairo.
According to Nancy Kanach, director of the Office of International Programs, the University has been in touch with the students, four of whom are in Cairo and one of whom is in Alexandria. All the students are currently at their local airport waiting for a flight out of Egypt that is supposed to depart on Monday morning Egyptian time.
"The U.S. Embassy is recommending 'voluntary departure' of U.S. citizens from Cairo, which is a serious statement," Kanach said in an e-mail.
In situations in which students may be in danger, the OIP consults InternationalSOS, State Department and security reports, colleagues who have programs or students in the affected area and local regional experts. According to Kanach, the office then recommends a course of action which the provost, dean of the college and the vice president for campus life review.
When LaMontagne studied at AUC for five months last spring, Egypt was clearly a "police state," he said in an e-mail.
"I think I walked by 15 security personnel just on the 10 minute walk from the bus stop to my apartment," LaMontagne said.
Marian Messing '11, who was also at the AUC last spring, said that "police officers were at almost every corner" during her time abroad.
"They sat in their police huts with an assault rifle strapped over their backs or resting on their laps, all the while texting on their mobile phones," she said.
On Saturday, however, the police withdrew from its typical post in the face of the angry protests that began on Tuesday, a date chosen to coincide with the National Police Day holiday. These protests are the largest demonstrations seen in Egypt since 1977.
Protestors have focused on issues such corruption, high unemployment and the lack of free elections and free speech, and they are calling for an end to the regime of current Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Egyptian government has responded using both non-lethal methods such as tear gas and lethal methods such as live ammunition. When publicity increased over the past week, the Egyptian government limited Internet access and mobile phone service.
Now, mobs are freely looting ATMs and shattering store windows, and they have destroyed two ancient mummies from Cairo's Egyptian Museum.
"Every city has an underbelly," LaMontagne said of the rioting that followed the police withdrawal. "New York wouldn't be a very nice place to live either, without the NYPD."
According to Messing, who visited Egypt again this past November for thesis research, Egyptians were dissatisfied with Mubarak, who has served as president for the past three decades, even during more peaceful times.
"In terms of governance (i.e. everyday administrative services), I was appalled at what Egyptians faced on a daily basis," Messing said in an e-mail. "I never once saw trash pickup taking place, and one time, I saw a bunch of needles atop a pile of garbage on the same street on which I often [saw] kids playing."
Messing and many of her Wilson School classmates focused their junior papers on the National Democratic Party's use of fraud during Egyptian elections and on police corruption.
"My experience led me to believe that there was discontent in the general population but also a deep sense of hopelessness — so I was very happy to see that people decided to take their future into their own hands," said Ari Heistein '11, who was also in Egypt last year.
Last spring, Egyptian workers tried to hold protests in Tahrir Square near Messing's downtown apartment. Security forces clothed in black with riot shields and nightsticks gathered around the Square to contain the protests.
"Someone told me it would be dangerous to try to take a picture of the riot police, as they could take my camera and commit other sorts of harassment," Messing said. She explained that, based on her time in Cairo and her research on Egypt, "these workers' protests were the most significant Egypt had seen in a long time."
While Messing said she believes that "Egyptians are understandably upset with the U.S. for supporting an illegitimate and repressive government for the past 30 years," she added that her experiences in Egypt have led her to believe that "on a person-to-person basis, Egyptians can get along with Americans."