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Egypt protests cause panic among U.S. students in Cairo

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 10:46 PM

Panic shot through a Cairo dormitory as resident assistants screamed at students to get into their rooms. Several Georgetown University students, there on a study abroad program, heard furniture being pushed against doors as makeshift barricades. They saw guards stationed in the front of the dorm, armed with metal sticks and a fire hose.

"My roommate and I got into my room and locked the door," said Nafees Ahmed of Bethesda, a Georgetown junior, who described the ordeal in a video conference call Tuesday with university officials and reporters. "I went into survival mode, and I got my sneakers on and made sure that I had all of my necessities with me."

It turned out to be a false alarm, but in those tense moments, several of the Georgetown students decided it was time to get out of Egypt.

Fifteen Georgetown students were preparing to start classes at the American University in Cairo when pro-democracy demonstrations erupted last week. Suddenly, there was no Internet access - just news from televisions tuned to al-Jazeera - and the only way to call home was on a university land line using a phone card.

On Sunday, Georgetown officials gathered in Washington and decided to evacuate the students, all juniors, to the school's satellite campus in Doha, Qatar. On Monday, as hundreds of college students from other schools fought for spots on evacuation flights chartered by the State Department, the Georgetown students had commercial plane tickets in hand.

"Getting you to a place where we could have this kind of a conversation was our first priority over the past few days," Georgetown President John J. DeGioia told the students during the conference call.

Several other area schools evacuated their students this week. George Washington University had 14 students studying in Cairo and Alexandria; 12 have left and two are staying with relatives in Egypt. American University had 11 students in Egypt, seven of whom landed in other countries Tuesday morning and four of whom were scheduled for flights later that day.

For many of the Georgetown students, the protests started as a curiosity. But fascination gave way to concern as the demonstrations and ensuing violence seemed to move closer and closer.

One student said she had to keep her apartment windows closed so tear gas would not seep in. Another talked about how he walked two blocks to a picked-over grocery store, carrying a large rock for defense. Several said they were shaken by the sound of gunfire, unsure whether it was warning shots.

"It wasn't always about what you saw; it was about what you heard," said Richard Rinaldi, a business student from New Jersey. "One of the most mind-blowing parts of all this was just being anywhere in the city and just listening to the cacophony of traffic and the call to prayer and gunfire, all at the same time."

Getting all 15 Georgetown students to the airport in time for an afternoon flight was a challenge. One student was staying at the American University's New Cairo Campus and had to take a private car. The others were staying in another dormitory or nearby apartments, and had to fight for spots in a packed bus.

The drive to the airport was harrowing - past burned-out cars, tanks and clouds of black smoke. Some protesters carried sticks, others held up their hands in peace signs. Some of the Georgetown students debated whether it was safe to take photos en route.

The airport was a chaotic mess, the students said. Travelers with tickets could barely get through the packed mass of travelers hoping for flights out.

Yet all 15 students made their flight and landed safely in Qatar. After a night of sleep, they turned their attention to making plans for the rest of the semester.

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