A Purdue professor on a Fulbright scholarship came back from Egypt on Sunday after witnessing first-hand the protests that occurred.
Michael Witt, an assistant professor of library science, received the Fulbright scholarship two years before his tumultuous trip to Egypt. For his Fulbright, he decided to do his research and give lectures at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Witt, his wife and his four children, ages ranging from 3 to 12 left for Egypt on Jan. 3.
Witt's accounts of each day of the protests and what followed are described below, day by day.
Witt knew of the protests beforehand via Facebook and Twitter. He was also aware that Jan. 25 was National Police Day for Egypt. His Egyptian colleagues were unperturbed by the situation.
"My colleagues told me this is the way things are. 70,000 people will join a group on Facebook, but then only a hundred or so will actually show up to the protests, because protesting is illegal in the eyes of the government," Witt said.
The U.S. Embassy warned that they should just be careful and stay inside.
Witt said it seemed calm outside. He went out with some colleagues for lunch. While they were driving, they saw crowds of protesters starting to appear. Witt said they seemed angry; the protesters were growing by hundreds of people per minute.
"My Egyptian colleagues seemed fascinated, almost amused," Witt said.
Just as they pulled away from the protesters, Witt saw a police line form with tanks behind them.
Witt watched the news and saw that thousands of people all over the city were protesting. He knew the situation was getting unstable, so he went to the local market and stocked up on supplies such as water and nonperishable food items.
Jan. 26 and Jan. 27 were uneventful compared to what was going to happen on Friday.
"We woke up Friday and the Internet was completely disconnected; the cell phones were disconnected, too," Witt said.
Witt and his wife continued home schooling their kids to keep a sense of normalcy because they were unaware and unable to understand the developing situation.
After 12 p.m. prayers, the situation started to degrade, according to Witt. The protesters were angry and violent - they were throwing stones and pieces of concrete at the police.
"The people view the police as being corrupt; anything that represented the police force was destroyed. The police station close to our apartment was firebombed, police were being thrown to the ground and beaten with pipes and sticks," Witt said.
The people rose up and overthrew the police, he said. Friday night, Witt watched from his apartment's balcony a whole line of people carrying boxes away from stores. People were looting and gun fights broke out on the street. Witt and his family turned off the lights in their apartment and blanked out the windows. They put their kids to bed with their shoes on and two bags packed.
"It was only a small number of people who did this, but it's mob mentality," Witt said.
Witt was concerned that their building was going to be looted. He and his wife agreed to take the first opportunity they had to leave.
Alexandria's protests became more violent, Witt said. The cell phone service, however, was turned back on.
Witt called the Fulbright Institute to assess the situation, but unfortunately they were unable to provide any sort of support such as getting them a way out. The Fulbright Institute was able to give them information and take what information the Witts had into account.
There are only two roads that go from Alexandria to Cairo: the "desert" road and the "farm" road. Witt was going to take the desert road to his aunt's house just outside of Cairo, when the Fulbright Institute called and informed him that the guards of a prison on the desert road just left their posts. Hundreds of inmates had escaped and were stopping cars, taking people out of them, beating them and then stealing the cars.
Witt contacted another Fulbright scholar in Alexandria who lived close to the Russian Embassy. She also had neighbors with weapons which made the location much safer. At that point, Witt and his family were the only tenants in their building. Witt was concerned that the environment was unsafe.
He contacted some Egyptian friends to help relocate his family. They said to him, "Don't worry, you are with the people now."
They relocated to the fellow scholar's apartment.
"We slept much better that night," Witt said.
Witt made arrangements with the Fulbright Institute to move himself and his family to Cairo. The institute called Sunday morning and instructed them to be ready.
"We only had 20 minutes to get ready to leave; we took only the essentials and left most of our things behind," Witt said. "It was our only shot at getting out and it was going to be dangerous, but that's what you do when you're a parent."
Witt said the Fulbright office sent its best driver to transfer them to Cairo.
"I'm deeply in the driver's debt," Witt said.
Witt and his family went through 15 to 20 checkpoints on the way to Cairo. Some of the checkpoints were operated by the military and some were operated by vigilantes.
Witt said his driver was very "savvy" in the sense that he acted like he was anti-government when he had to or acted like he was pro-police when he had to.
"I saw some people get unloaded from cars at checkpoints, but I have no idea what happened to them," Witt said.
Once they got to Cairo, they were taken to a safe apartment on an island in the Nile where the U.S. Embassy is located.
Witt and his family drove to the Cairo airport. When they got to the airport they weren't sure where they were going to evacuate to.
"At the airport there was a long line. They would take a group of people and tell them they were going to Athens, Greece, but we were directed to Istanbul, Turkey," Witt said.
Afterwards they had to stay in Istanbul for five days due to their large group and the weather back in Indiana.
Witt said he was grateful to Purdue, the Fulbright Institute, the U.S. Embassy, and especially the driver that got them out of Alexandria.
"If you're going to be evacuated, I'd give it five stars," Witt said.
Unfortunately, since Witt accepted the evacuation, it concluded his Fulbright scholarship. He still had five months left.
Witt, however, remains positive.
"It's disappointing of course, but this is Egypt's time," Witt said. "The people are no longer are afraid of their government, their voices are being heard."