Robert Joyce, a Princeton University sophomore, wrote his Arabic paper last Friday amid the sound of Egyptian chants, screams and gunshots.
Mr. Joyce, a Near Eastern Studies major from Brooklyn, witnessed the political turmoil in Egypt firsthand while studying at Alexandria University through a program with Middlebury College.
He is the first of five Princeton students to return safely from Egypt to the United States. Oren Samet-Marram, Kelly Roache, Michael Gibbs and Tal Eisenzweig, all juniors who had been studying at the American University in Cairo, are the other four.
They were evacuated from Egypt and were in transit from Istanbul. They were scheduled to return to Princeton by yesterday afternoon.
Mr. Joyce had been in Alexandria since Jan. 8 and anti-Mubarak protests broke out in the city on Jan. 25. As the demonstrations escalated throughout the week, he saw rising violence in the streets.
"The police would attack with shields and batons and tear gas and bullets," he said. "The protesters would surround the police trucks and start shaking the truck until it tipped over, then light it on fire. By nightfall, just about every police station in Alexandria had been burned down."
On Jan. 31, Mr. Joyce and some classmates were caught in tear gas.
"Your skin burns, your throat burns, your nose burns, your eyes burn, everything just burns a lot," he said, "You basically want to tear your eyes out."
When the government instituted a curfew the next day, Mr. Joyce and his classmates moved to a nearby apartment. Pathik Root, a junior from Middlebury College, had been living there since September while studying with the same program.
By this time, "total, utter chaos" had taken the city. The police had disbanded, numerous prisons had emptied, and no one had Internet or mobile phone access.
"You've got to think, what happens to a huge city when it's guaranteed that there's no ambulance, fire department or police department?" Mr. Joyce said. "The looters and thugs were setting fire to things, creating as much terror as they could to scare people into accepting the regime again."
Mr. Root, Mr. Joyce and their classmates joined a neighborhood watch formed by the Egyptian residents in their area.
"They quarantined off two and a half blocks and armed themselves with whatever they could get," Mr. Root said. "One guy had a shotgun, and another guy had a two-by-four with nails stuck in it. My friend had a copper pipe."
The makeshift militia guarded their neighborhood throughout the night.
"Every hour or so, men with weapons would drive up at the end of the block," Joyce said, "and about 200 men — residents of the block — would run screaming, swinging two-by-fours, and they would go away."
At 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, Mr. Joyce and his classmates were told by On Call International, their insurance company, to wait outside for evacuation forces.
"Three and a half hours later, no one had shown up," he said.
Eventually, the students flagged an empty bus and paid their way to Borg El Arab Airport. After several flight delays, they got to Prague on Monday, and back to the United States on Tuesday night.
The Princeton students will meet with a dean on Friday to discuss their options for the rest of the semester. All five have expressed desires to go back abroad.
Mr. Joyce says the experience has transformed his understanding of Near Eastern studies.
"When you write these things, it's just an idea. Once you understand what popular appeal means, it's harder to just throw that term around and theorize about it," he said. "When you're being tear-gassed and having a mob attack your apartment, it's a little different."