On Tuesday morning, his father, Kevin Sweeney, turned on his computer to see his son, looking pale and shaken, in the custody of Egyptian authorities, who have accused him of hurling firebombs during riots in Cairo.
With an earnest young American caught up in the throes of a distant upheaval, the scene — in images on the Internet — was a parent’s nightmare, especially for those with children studying abroad.
Egyptian authorities had filmed and photographed Derrik Sweeney, who was studying Arabic at American University in Cairo, beside two other arrested students: Luke Gates, 21, of Bloomington, Ind., who attends Indiana University; and Gregory Porter, 19, of Glenside, Pa., who attends Drexel University in Philadelphia.
In the photograph, Sweeney and Gates appear to be holding bottles of liquid as they stand against a bare wall beside Porter.
Around his neck, Gates wears what appears to be a surgical mask like the kind many demonstrators have been wearing to protect against tear gas.
In the video, a hand reaches from off camera and pushes Porter’s chin up.
Egyptian authorities have accused the students of throwing firebombs at police. The authorities allege that the men were caught on a rooftop.
The students were scheduled to be questioned in a Cairo courthouse on Tuesday afternoon.
But the university’s counsel was unable to get into the courthouse because of security concerns, and the questioning was tabled until late Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, said Morgan Roth, a spokeswoman for American University in Cairo.
The elder Sweeney said that he had no idea whether the firebomb accusations were true.
“If he got caught up in the whole freedom thing, I suppose he could have thrown it at the police,” Sweeney said of his son. “I could see where he’d have some disagreement with tyranny.”
Sweeney, of Jefferson City, Mo., said he learned about his son’s arrest when a relative telephoned and said he had seen the story on television Tuesday morning.
Sweeney said in a telephone interview that he believed his son was being held in a courthouse in Cairo. “I’m hoping the fact that he’s 19 years old will be a mitigating factor, and, hopefully, they put him on a plane” home, he said.
“I suspect what happened is . . . that being with a bunch of Egyptian students, he probably got caught up in something. Who knows?
“I suppose thoughts of the American revolution probably were things that probably crossed his mind. He’s a huge follower of U.S. constitutional history and the Revolutionary War.
“We have endless discussions on the events of that,” he added.
The incident prompted several local colleges to check in with their students studying in Cairo and remind them to follow directions from the U.S. Embassy.