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Alumnus studies in Egypt, watches Cairo protests

This will be a two-part feature following alumnus Matthew Nickel’s, ’08, time studying abroad in Egypt during the civil war and protests against Hosni Mubarak.

In the spring of 2011, an uprising in Egypt threatened to overthrow the Egyptian government. Over 20% of the population participated in the protests targeted at the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak had remained in power for three decades until this uprising took place, Jan. 25. The president refused to resign until weeks later when he finally stepped down from power, Feb. 12.

FC alumnus Matthew Nickel, ’08, experienced the revolution in Egypt for himself. Nickel had traveled to the North African country in the spring of 2011 to study abroad, but instead found himself right in the middle of a civil uprising.

When Nickel still attended FC as a high school student, he was very involved in school activities. Gary Schultz, high school principal at the time, reflects on Nickel’s influence on campus.

“He was a very intelligent, hardworking student, making an impact through leadership roles in music, on the tennis team, and other creative school activities,” Schultz said. “When he was at FC, I saw him as more of a behind-the-scenes person, but now I see him as a more of an out-front person. I didn’t see him in situations like traveling to Egypt or camping, but he’s certainly surprised me.”

Nickel was an international affairs major at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, and studying abroad was encouraged to give students new experiences and a wider view of the world. After some thought, Nickel chose to study in the Middle East.

“At first I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go,” Nickel said. “I wanted to go somewhere that would challenge me. I decided to focus on the Middle East and Islamic culture, because one of the best study abroad programs I could find that catered to my interests was located in the region.”

The program that Nickel went through was based in Cairo, the capitol of Egypt, for the first part of the trip, and students arrived in January of 2011. They stayed in apartments near the Nile River next to the 6th October Bridge. While originally planning to travel to Turkey, Jordan, Seria and Israel, plans changed after the revolution began. Nickel explains that there had been rumors of a revolution for some time in Egypt.

“Supposedly there had been talk that there might be a protest in Egypt in previous years,” Nickel said. “There had been a few protests in the past with a couple hundred people but nothing too big. People in our neighborhood didn’t think people would show up to a protest, but others feared the protests might be bigger this time. Our program leader told us to stay away from Tahrir Square, in the center of Cairo, for our safety.”

On Jan. 25, Nickel and other students in the program stayed away from Tahrir Square as they had been instructed, but they still went out for their service project. On the way home that afternoon, Nickel began to notice unusual occurrences.

“Just as I was getting home, cars started driving on the wrong sides of the [6th October] bridge,” Nickel said. “I thought it was weird. There were protests and police on the streets, so we didn’t go out the rest of the day. The protests were a lot bigger than people had expected, but it wasn’t violent yet.”

The protest began to become violent, Jan. 28, also known as the Day of Rage. It was a Friday, a mosque day, when most of the population attends mosque. Nickel describes how this day went for him, noting that there were rumors of a protest.

“That was the day protests began to escalate,” Nickel said. “In the morning we went to see the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, where we saw temples and tombs. That was probably one of the coolest moments of my entire life. I walked into King Tut’s tomb and had an Indiana Jones moment. When we came back to our hotel, which was in the middle of town, the director of our program said there might be a protest there, but we weren’t sure. Our guide, an Egyptian citizen, had heard the same thing. We were instructed to stay inside the hotel for a few hours to make sure it was safe before leaving.”

Staying in the hotel proved to be a smart decision. Protesters came close by Nickel’s hotel soon after mosque.

“People thought protesters might march after mosque since they were all gathered,” Nickel said. “At 2 p.m. nothing had happened yet. We were told to sit tight, and sure enough, 20 minutes later, a couple hundred people walked by our hotel. We thought it wasn’t that big of a deal and asked if we could leave our apartments, but our leaders wouldn’t let us.”

The crowd became larger, with a couple thousand or so of protesters all marching together. Because Nickel’s hotel was located in the center of town, protesters marched straight toward their hotel as they walked in a loop. Nickel and other students on his program watched the action from the rooftop of their hotel.

“They clashed with the state police just to the right of our hotel, trying to break through the line of the police,” Nickel said. “There were undercover cops who would turn around and beat people, throwing them behind the riot police line. There were people running around. It wasn’t incredibly violent, but it was real. It was right there. And it was exciting.”

While Nickel remained relatively calm during the protests, his friends and family back home had more trouble keeping their composure. They prayed for his safety as he continued to encounter more life-changing experiences.

Read the second part of this story, Alumnus cherishes study abroad program in Egypt, Oct. 23.

For more features, read the Oct. 10 article Chalk-drawing competition creates memories, opportunities.

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