‘We had wandered into a war’

Alumnae recount their experiences in the midst of Egypt's revolution

On January 27, twenty-four alumnae, their spouses, and friends on a Smith Travel trip to Egypt arrived in Cairo just as the country erupted and demonstrators against President Hosni Mubarak filled the capital city. For two tense days, Smith Travel and the tour company, Odysseys Unlimited worked the phones to get the group out of Egypt. Now safely home in the States, they recount what they saw.

Bird’s-eye view of a revolution

By Former Smith College President Mary Maples Dunn

Our hotel overlooked Tahrir Square, and we had a room on the twenty-seventh floor. On the other side of the hotel was the Nile River and a view of the bridge where the fiercest battle between demonstrators and police eventually took place. So we could see it all.

We arrived mid-afternoon on Thursday, January 27, and the tour group was immediately advised to stay in the hotel. At a meeting at 5 that afternoon, we were given a revised tour schedule. The demonstration was to begin after the Friday prayer at 1:30, so we would go early the next morning to Giza to see the great Pyramids and the Sphinx, which we did. Words can’t describe the awe we felt in seeing these monumental landmarks, and the coming political fight seemed very distant indeed. After an early lunch, our bus raced back to the hotel, and as we got closer we began to see tight groups of police in full riot dress stationed strategically around the center of the city. We got safely back to find the hotel full of armed security officers, and we were told to go to our rooms. Outside, the square was quiet and empty because the police had it closed off. We eventually went to a fourth-floor terrace, a beautiful spot, where we watched the police and the demonstrators battle—one side with rocks, the other with water cannons (we had never seen one—a big square sort of truck full of water with a cannon in front that shoots streams of water with great pressure), tear gas, rubber bullets. The police were slowly advancing, although the demonstrators would pulse forward and then retreat, but the police were definitely winning; soon the demonstrators were pushed to the other side of the Nile. For us, this was surreal. There we were on an elegant terrace, with waiters rushing about with mango and guava juice and water, and a crowd watching this pitched battle, mostly silently.

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Witnessing modern history in the making

By Gardi Pedersen Hauck ’65

It’s almost impossible to put our Egypt experience into words. By Saturday, I was keeping my journal by the hour.

Our group of twenty-four was kept out of harm’s way by our amazing guide, 29-year-old Nora, who was so bright, beautiful, passionate, and forthright. Our only sightseeing was to visit the Sphinx and the pyramids in Giza on Friday morning before we were rushed back to our hotel, which was considered safer than any other place. We had tight security and our own tanks and we were in lock down from noon on that day. A window was broken in the lobby late Friday afternoon, so from then on the elevator stopped at the second floor and we were not allowed below that level. It was pitch dark down there anyway.

Our hotel looked out on one side over Tahrir Square, the center of the demonstrations. On the other side was the Nile River and the bridge that the huge wave of demonstrators marched over on Friday afternoon, only to be driven back to the other side by the dreaded police force looking like so many Darth Vaders locked arm in arm. This we watched from about 100 yards away on the terrace of the hotel while being served fresh mango and strawberry juice. I couldn’t stop thinking of those who continued to waltz on the Titanic.

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We hope the very best

By Mary Ellen Ellsworth ’62

On January 26, my husband, Mike, and I set off on a Smith Travel trip to Egypt with a planned extension to Jordan. The trip’s itinerary was quite wonderful, with several days in Cairo, cruises on the Nile River and Lake Nasser, and visits to Alexandria, Aswan, Luxor, Amman, and Petra.

We left the United States knowing that demonstrations had already been planned in Egypt for National Police Day, and most experts agreed that there would be a single-day demonstration and then everyone would go back to work. The following days, of course, did not unfold as expected.

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Cairo Timeline: From Pyramids to Protests

By Judith Bronstein Milestone ’66

Wednesday night, January 26: We leave JFK for Cairo in the middle of a snowstorm. We’re on one of the last planes out.

Thursday, January 27: After landing in Cairo and negotiating the shiny new airport, we meet our beautiful guide, Nora, and ride through the peaceful Cairo streets to the elegant Semiramis Hotel near Tahrir Square. In the lobby, I run into Agnes Stephenson (Stevie) Coppin ’51, a Smith friend from previous Smith trip. Smithies are everywhere! Later, Stevie brings Grolsch beer to our group’s organizational meeting. Then there is a get-acquainted dinner of traditional Egyptian fare at the Blue Nile across the river. I sleep like a baby after 17 hours of flying.

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The People’s Revolution 2011

By Hala Kamal, DIPL ’00

I am an Egyptian, living and working in Cairo and currently appointed as assistant professor in the English department at Cairo University. I spent a year at Smith College enrolled in the American Studies Diploma Program for international students (1999-2000), during which I focused on developing my knowledge of feminist praxis through women’s studies; I wrote my diploma thesis with Professor Susan Van Dyne on women’s memoirs by immigrant academics in the United States. I am writing this now to share with you some of my reflections on the ongoing Egyptian people’s revolution.

Despite the regime’s many, often brutal, attempts to suppress the uprising of the Egyptian people since January 25, our revolution continues unabated. Its main demand, that President Mubarak step down, is gaining in intensity, although the regime claims to have conceded to most of the people’s demands. In the eyes of the people, giving up or even postponing the demand for Mubarak’s departure would be a betrayal of the revolution.

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