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Eyewitness to history: ASU junior reflects on his time in Egypt

Matt Scarvie in front of the pyramids.
February 14, 2011

Matt Scarvie is a junior majoring in history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. He spent the Fall 2010 semester at the American University in Cairo as part of the study abroad program and returned to Cairo in the spring, just one day before the uprising began. This is his story.

I arrived in Egypt Jan. 24, the day before everything started. After having a normal Egyptian evening of shisha, koshari and mango juice, I went to bed. I knew there was a protest planned for the following day, but I did not expect anything to come of it.

When my friends and I woke up Tuesday morning, we decided to venture to Cairo University. Tahrir Square, which the world has now come to recognize, had never been so empty. Riot police lined the arteries feeding into the city center, blocking cars and pedestrians alike from entering. During the day, we saw a confrontation between a large mob and the riot police, but nothing violent. There was definitely tension in the air.

By nightfall, the mob had pushed through the city into Tahrir Square. My friends and I decided to go down and have a look. The people were calm, but alert. People were sitting in the street discussing the situation or singing patriotic songs. They easily fell into anti-Mubarak chants.

As we stood around talking to people, I began to feel uneasy and that we should leave. Seconds later, tear gas canisters started to fill the square and all the side streets. We quickly left the scene as everyone panicked and scattered. At this point in time, tear gas could still be used to disperse the protestors. This wouldn’t be the case for long. We learned after getting back to our apartment, a block away from the square, that the demonstrations would continue and that Friday was to be designated “the Day of Anger.”

On Friday morning, my friends and I went out for breakfast. For less than $2 dollars, we had a gigantic meal including eggs, beans, falafel and tea. On the way back to the apartment, we passed a local mosque. Many of the mosques were gathering sites for the protestors. Egyptians spilled out onto the street for the midday prayer. From our balcony we watched the members of that mosque march down the street, chanting for Mubarak to leave. We also saw row upon row of riot police, ready to confront the dissenters. The protestors were equally ready for the Day of Anger.

They made their way to Talat Harb Street, one of the main streets feeding into Tahrir. Excited and apprehensive, we followed them. The next three hours were complete chaos. Tear gas filled the air, the police fired rubber bullets into the crowd, and running battles between the police and the people endured throughout the night. I got my first taste of being tear gassed, which is awful. Your whole face burns, you can’t see, and gas seeps into your throat leaving you coughing and gasping for air. I got separated from my friends and ended up trapped in an alley between a street filled with gas and another filled with clashing police and protestors. When the moment presented itself, I sprinted back into my apartment, trying not to inhale too much gas.

For the Egyptian people, Friday was a day filled with pain and anger, but also triumph. Unlike Tuesday, tear gas no longer dispersed the crowds. The crowds of men and women, children and the elderly would not back down. The Egyptian people were no longer afraid.

Scarvie, a 2009-2010 Undergraduate Research Fellow with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, was evacuated to the United States a few days after the events described here took place and is currently with his family in New Mexico. He hopes to return to Cairo to complete his studies and to witness the historical transformation taking place in Egypt.