Out of Egypt

April 15, 2011 | CUNY Matters

CUNY Student Alex Schindler

Two CUNY students in Cairo suddenly find themselves part

of a historic outcry for democracy.

Norhan Basuni had finished her monthlong study-abroad program in Cairo and was set to fly home to New York. It was Jan. 25, the first day of nationwide demonstrations against a formidable dictator. To Basuni, boarding her flight that day seemed like the last thing she should do.

Basuni, a senior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was born in the United States to Egyptian parents and visits relatives in Cairo every year. In December, she flew to the Egyptian capital for a month of research of the country’s politics, government and international relations. So when the first stirrings of protest against President Hosni Mubarak erupted in Cairo on the very day she was to leave — and within a stone’s throw of her family’s home near Tahrir Square

CUNY student Norhan Basuni

— Basuni had a decision to make. To her, there was no choice.

“We knew it was going to happen,” she said. “I saw it on Facebook, and my friends knew about it.” Basuni, 21, called her parents. “My mom said, ‘Don’t go.’ My father said, ‘I know you are going to go. Be careful.’ It was one of those things you felt you must do. The object was liberation, and that’s what we were fighting for. I joined the march.”

Basuni wasn’t the only CUNY undergraduate who went abroad this winter and wound up in the middle of what turned out to be the overthrow of Egypt’s long-time dictator. Alex Schindler, a junior at Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College who is also pursuing a CUNY Baccalaureate degree, enrolled at the American University in Cairo for the spring semester. “I wanted to improve my Arabic, to immerse myself in Arab culture, and Egypt was a safe place,” he said. He arrived in Cairo on Jan. 17, two weeks before classes were to begin. Events eight days later gave him a real immersion in Arabic culture — and for a while, Egypt wasn’t such a safe place.

Basuni and Schindler described their experiences at a CUNY Study Abroad Re-Entry seminar on March 4 and elaborated in interviews.

At John Jay, Basuni is completing a double major in conflict resolution and international crime, justice and development. At Tahrir Square, conflict grew before her eyes. It started peacefully enough, she said. “It was just about marching in great numbers and shouting out slogans,” she said of that first day. “I thought it was going to end at that, but it started to escalate. I was there for about four days, coming and going. Each time I went I participated. I felt part of the Egyptians who had been there all their life. I felt empowered and inspired by what people my age were doing; how people my age were making a difference. I was energized. I wanted to be part of this. I felt if I’m here, there’s a reason I’m here.”

When the tear gassing began, she said, “My family advised me to stay home; they weren’t sure just how dangerous this was.” But Basuni ventured out again. “Tanks were everywhere,” she said, “but there wasn’t a time I felt fear for my life or endangered.” She photographed protesters carrying banners, children standing on tanks and families camping on the ground beside the tanks.

What worried Basuni more than the threat of violence was the government’s shutdown of the Internet: Her family would have no way of knowing if she was safe. “I was devastated,” she said. “This was my only way of connecting with the outside world. I lost contact with [my family] for about four days. One day I was able to contact my older sister.”

While Basuni had deep roots in Egypt and even a home near the rebellion, Alex Schindler was making his first visit to the country. It was a trip he’d long anticipated: A Macaulay honors student, Schindler is pursuing a double major in Middle East Studies and International Relations.

Landing in the capital, Schindler, 21, was picked up at the airport by an American friend of Egyptian heritage who was studying in Cairo. “As he drove around, pointing out interesting sights, he told me, ‘On January 25, you should probably lie low. Don’t come downtown.’ I didn’t heed it.”

Peaceful protesters fill Cairo streets, above and far left, catching up on news whenever they can, left.

That day, Schindler and another friend visiting him from Israel toured the pyramids. Then they took a taxi to Tahrir Square. “We see these serious-looking students, about our age,” he said, “and we were shocked to see lines and lines of police in riot gear.”

Schindler couldn’t envision the young protesters amassing the power to actually topple Mubarak. “For the most part, the protesters were just protesting,” he said. “I didn’t expect anything to come of it. The same military dictatorship had been in power 30 years. I figured it would be small, and if it got big they would start shooting protesters and that would be the end of it, like Tiananmen Square.”

He returned to the square with a roommate the next day. “I decided to check out the protest. Now there was actual police action. I could hear the firing of rubber bullets. We saw people wearing gas masks and policemen charging into protesters. I thought, ‘. . . This went from inconsequential to very significant.’ ”

The next day, his roommate, the son of an Egyptian military official, told him there would be a revolution. For the first time, it occurred to Schindler that he might be witnessing history. “I wanted to be part of the protest. I wanted to be part of history.”

The protests became increasingly heated, but it wasn’t until the fifth day that Schindler became afraid. He heard there were looters near the building where he was staying. He said he patrolled the balcony all night with a steak knife.

Children stand on tank at right and families camp beside it, ignored by soldiers; protester at far right displays a timely newspaper front page.

Meanwhile, the Internet went black. “I couldn’t get through. I tried to make a phone call, nothing.  I said, ‘Oh God, my parents!’ ” Finally, a call came through from them. They had been in touch with the American University’s New York office and arranged for Schindler to move to its campus in the suburbs ahead of schedule. But his semester abroad never happened. Classes were delayed a week, and then the U.S. Embassy ordered the evacuation of Americans. Schindler flew home.

Norhan Basuni flew home the same day, Feb. 2 — reluctantly. “I feel  blessed to have been a part of this and to witness it first-hand,” she said. “It made me feel hopeful for the future.” Her heart, she said, was still in Tahrir Square. “My soul was there.”