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Meditations During Egypt's Revolution

Northwestern alumnus reports from Cairo in emails to family and friends

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July 25, 2013 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Alumnus Timothy Garrett landed his first job out of college this summer in Cairo directing an Arabic language school in a quiet neighborhood not far from Tahrir Square but soon found himself observing close up a revolution that has most of the world watching from afar.

After graduating only last month from Northwestern University and its new Middle East and North African Studies program, Garrett headed to Cairo. The school he manages hosts both Western (mostly European) and Egyptian students, offering Arabic lessons to the former and English lessons to the latter.  

“I came to Egypt expecting my job as general manager of a language school to be a thrilling challenge,” Garrett wrote to family and friends. “I did not come expecting, after one month, to work as a general manager of a language school in the middle of a popularly supported military coup.

“It’s made for an incredibly busy and exciting week, distributing advice for how to stay safe in these times, constantly keeping tabs on where our students are, making sure that they know what’s safe and what isn’t, and deciding when to cancel classes and when to keep the school open.”

In a series of emails to friends, family members and others, Garrett captures the awe of being swept up in history, the mundane disruptions of the unrest, widely held perceptions in the news versus realities on the ground -- and his reliance on Western media and Facebook to stay informed about a revolution taking place almost right outside his doorstep.

On July 1, for example, he wrote: “There was barely a person in the streets where I was, and so a group of birds landed on top the school and started singing (which never happens in Cairo). It was entirely calm where we are…” (The sentence broke off because the Egyptian military started announcing that it would be taking over in 48 hours.)

On July 3 to a friend: “The moment Sisi’s announcement ended half an hour ago, every man in the room formed a line, saluted and started singing military songs.”

On July 4 to a Northwestern administrator: “Awfully hard to tell what’s going on in the country right now, since the army has taken over the TV channels and blocked the ones they’re opposed to.”

On July 18 to family and friends: “I’ve been incredibly impressed with how so many Egyptians have responded to the unrest of the past few weeks. I feel like it would have been easy for the country to have totally collapsed into civil violence at this stage, and there’ve been a number of opportunities for the situation to get worse quickly. Yet it hasn’t, not yet, anyway.”

NOTE: Julie Friend, associate director for international safety and security at Northwestern, has kept in touch with Garrett during the unrest. She is interested both in the safety of Garrett, a Northwestern alumnus, and, in general, the current safety of Cairo’s streets. Northwestern, however, does not have a relationship with the school where Garrett works. The University does have an affiliation with the American University in Cairo. Northwestern students are not enrolled in the program this summer, and this fall Northwestern has suspended study in the American University program because of safety concerns.

See below more excerpts from Garrett’s day-by-day email correspondence on the evolution of a revolution.

June 17

Message to everyone:

...the political situation seems totally safe so far. When you go through downtown Cairo, there are a lot of roadblocks and security guards, but it's been totally quiet every time I've been there. Still, there are supposed to be these really massive demonstrations happening on June 30. Nobody's quite sure what's going to happen on that day. Please don't worry about me too much. I promise to be smart about everything I'm doing. I'll probably end up spending most of that day on call to make sure our students are safe.

June 25

To everyone:

As usual, all's perfectly well. Plenty of excitement this past weekend, and it seems like there'll be plenty of excitement to go around this upcoming weekend, too...

Here's how it's affecting me:

So, first of all, my apartment… is in a generally low-key part of town, very detached from the expected sites of major protests. Even better, the school is in… a poorer area even farther from protest sites….

So what I've decided is to open up the school all day. Classes are, of course, going to be canceled, but I'll probably get there around 8:30 and just camp out…. Anyway, what that means is that I'll be spending the entire 30th locked up on the top floor of a building in a basically remote part of the city far away from any ugliness. In case you see ugly news from Cairo this weekend, which is fairly likely, you really won't need to worry if it's affecting me.

June 30

To a friend:

…We've been getting ready for this weekend for the past two weeks. We've got 30 gallons of water, enough food to last 10 people a week at least, and an enormous Mameluke-era gate (think 7 or 8 inches thick, and probably 12 feet high) protecting the school. For the short term, we'll be just fine….

For all that, thanks for the concern…I'm pretty confident that we have the situation as under control as managing a revolution can be. We'll see where the day's festivities take the country, but things really ought to be okay.

Incidentally, I'm planning on spending the day on Skype…If you've been known to Skype on occasion, feel free to give me a ring. For all the excitement happening a 10-minute drive away, it looks like the day here at the school is likely to be very boring. Not that that's a bad thing. But still.

July 1

To a Northwestern administrator:

Good hearing from you….Right now, it's very hard to tell what's happening….This morning, the streets seemed like they do every other day (unlike yesterday, where everything was shockingly quiet in the morning). Everyone's waiting to see what happens today, if the demonstrations return, or if people lose steam pre-Ramadan. Our school's back to having classes, and it seems like things may be okay.

At the same time, there are some less optimistic signs. I'm definitely getting more odd looks on the streets….I'm pretty confident that speaking Egyptian Arabic and maintaining common sense will keep me as safe as I can be, but I'm also very curious to see where the country goes.

July 1

To a Northwestern professor:

The past few days have been the most bizarre combination of exciting and boring....

I spent all of yesterday holed up at the school with a handful of my students from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., then got home before the protests passed by. Incredibly bizarre day. There was barely a person in the streets where I was, and so a group of birds landed on top of the school and started singing (which never happens in Cairo). It was entirely calm where we are.....

I'm cutting off this email because the military started to make an announcement. Seems like they're saying they're taking over after 48 hours if the Brotherhood doesn't "change." Everyone is going crazy around here.

July 1

To friends, family, professors:

…About three minutes ago, the Egyptian army announced that in 48 hours they'd take over if the Brotherhood didn't "resolve the situation.” Everyone here's getting very excited. It's a fascinating time…

Love to everyone. Will be in more regular contact soon.

July 2

To a friend:

...the rest of the day here passed perfectly smoothly. The celebrations across the city were enormous. An English teacher at my school really wanted to see what was going on, so we managed to find this cafe just across the river from Tahrir. Really spectacular view to see history in the making, and mostly calm and safe on our side of the water.

It'll be fascinating to see where Egypt goes in the coming days, and I'll be thrilled to see it all unfold. Safely, of course.

July 3

(in the morning)

To family, friends, professors and others:

… I'd always assumed that during a revolution, day-to-day life kind of grinds to a halt and the revolution is all anyone talks about. Turns out, that's not really how it is. The big demonstrations always start in the late afternoons and carry on late into the night, but during the mornings and early afternoons (which is when we have classes) life seems disturbingly normal….

Managing a school during a revolution probably wasn't what I was expecting in my first job out of college. I commented to one of our teachers yesterday, I think I'm totally fine being responsible for a lot of people, and I'm totally fine being in unfamiliar situations. What I don't like is being responsible for a lot of people in an entirely unfamiliar situation, which is what's happening now. Though, of course, you adjust in the end.

Today should be a big day in Egypt. The Army's 48-hour warning to Morsi expires at 5 p.m., which is when they say they'll take over. Morsi gave a big speech at midnight insisting that he's not going to let this happen, which didn't convince a lot of people, but it does suggest this may not go smoothly…

We'll see what happens. In the meantime, just know that I'm keeping myself very safe and very much out of the action. 

July 3

(in the evening):

To everyone:

Just dropping everyone a note saying that all's well and safe with me and my students here in Cairo. Incredibly fascinating time.

We wanted all of our students to be off the streets by 5, which was when the military's deadline for Morsi was ending. So we all moved to the students' apartment, which is about five minutes from Tahrir.

The military ended up being about four hours late. (I wonder if this is typical for them, and if this might explain their track record in recent wars.) Still, well, when the military made the announcement, I've never seen people so excited as the seven Egyptians with us. Screaming, dancing, singing, crying. It was incredibly touching.

As soon as the announcement was over, all the Egyptian men in the room formed a line, saluted and started singing military songs. Looks like the 16 months under SCAF's rule have mostly been forgotten in all the celebration. Not sure what that bodes for Egypt's future.

In a very controlled way (we had seven Egyptians for us six foreigners), we went downstairs and just walked a block and a half toward Tahrir, before we turned around and headed back. Still got to see what looked like the entire country celebrating. It's an amazing, historic moment…

It's been a pretty incredible week. We'll see what the future holds for Egypt.

Best wishes for everyone, and, if you're the type, please keep Egypt in your prayers for the coming period.

July 3

Aside to a friend:

I was thinking yesterday; it's awfully funny, that from the first day of all of this, July 1, when the army announced that President Morsi had 48 hours to change course, to today, the 3rd, when Morsi's been unseated, this latest Egyptian revolution matches up perfectly with Gettysburg, 150 years ago to the day.

History really is something, isn't it?

July 3

To an American friend who had lived in Egypt:

…What I'm more worried about -- mostly for the sake of my students -- is short-term violence. Revolutions are just inherently chaotic times, and I feel like there are likely a lot of people now in Egypt who are more than willing to use violence and who feel very angry and very threatened right now….

July 4

Security message to Garrett’s students:

…As of now, it is our plan to keep our school in Cairo open throughout the summer. The situation in the city seems to be under control, and we've had no reports of any sort of danger threatening our students.

At the same time, the situation is still very much uncertain, and may change in the coming days or weeks. We promise to be as open and prompt as possible in informing you of any important news regarding our school….If any students do not feel safe coming to Egypt in the coming months, we can easily set up a course of equivalent value at our institute in Amman, Jordan. If you are interested in more details about this offer, please contact us as soon as possible.

July 4

To the friend who had lived in Egypt:

Well, of course it's a coup. The military has entirely occupied Cairo right now. There are tanks and armed soldiers everywhere, and we had to deal with fighter jets flying overhead all day. We can all hope that it's a temporary coup, and they'll return power to civilians sooner rather than later. And coups aren't always bad things. But I really don't think we can call it anything else….

You can call me too much of a pessimist (and please don't get me wrong... it's amazing seeing so many people so excited and happy here right now.) But I feel like the situation's much too complex to be anything but worried....

Last addition: this article from the NYTimes gives what I'd call a really intelligent description of why I think the 30th was worth it, and also why it's so important for everyone to keep their eyes open.

July 4

To a Northwestern administrator:

…Awfully hard to tell what's going on in the country right now, since the army has taken over the TV channels and blocked the ones they're opposed to....

Still, all of our students are still safe, and that's worth something.

I'm waiting to see where the next few days (weeks?) go before I make any decisions on what I'm doing here.

July 6

Security update Garrett wrote for students:

As we're all aware, yesterday was an ugly day here in Cairo, and the political situation now appears notably more dangerous and unstable than before. It's unclear what's going to develop in the country in the coming days. For tomorrow, there appear to be very large demonstrations planned for either side. Given the unstable political climate and the potential for violence, all classes scheduled for Sunday, July 7, [will be canceled]….

Classes are tentatively scheduled to resume on Monday, July 8. However, please be aware that this may change depending on how the situation develops. Naturally, all hours missed due to canceled classes will be made up at a later date…

Best wishes, and stay safe.

July 6

To a concerned friend:

…Ramadan is going to be starting on Tuesday, July 9, give or take a day, and historically Ramadan's been the time when all the big protests stop. And it's not totally clear yet if the next few days are going to be as bad as yesterday was. If they are, I'll totally hop on a plane to visit my aunt in Vienna for a couple of weeks (if it takes longer, my company thinks they can set me up at their school in Jordan.) It's an idea I'm taking very seriously right now....

I'm lucky enough to both live and work in neighborhoods where people could hardly care less about politics, and I'm far away from the big protest sites. Definitely think I can keep my head down for the next few days, but, like I was saying, if this carries on past a couple of days (which I honestly expect it will), then I really won't be in the country for that much longer.

July 6

To another concerned friend:

…Kind of a scary time here, but I've had no reason to believe yet that I'm in direct danger myself. For the next few days, I'll be staying indoors most of the time hoping that both sides stay rational here. I'm not happy to say it, but I'm really not too optimistic.

July 8

To a concerned friend:

I'm totally safe here in Egypt, and doing perfectly well. Though I'm more than a little annoyed. I went to bed last night optimistic and really impressed that the demonstrations were growing but staying totally peaceful. Then I woke up this morning to see the news about all of these pro-Morsi demonstrators shot and killed outside the palace. This is really the last thing this country needs right now.

I'll write a longer message to everyone soon. Till then, know that I'm safe (and in very good hands!) and that all the ugliness the country's going through is entirely detached from where I'm at in Cairo.

July 8

To family and friends:

…I'm still in Cairo, and I'm entirely safe. Both the areas where I'm living… and where I'm working…remain very secure and detached from the festivities that everyone's probably been seeing on the news. Besides an increase in the fireworks and firecrackers people are setting off and a greater number of Egyptian flags in people's windows, you'd never have a clue that we've been having hundreds of people demonstrating a mile or so away. It's a bit surreal, I suppose, but the relative detachment from the nastiness that some parts of the city are going through certainly makes one feel safer.

The result of the increased excitement of the past week is that weird paradox I mentioned before -- feeling both incredibly excited by what's going on just a few minutes away and incredibly bored at not being able to participate. This especially in these past few days, which have been a lot more violent than before. Frankly, lately, I haven't been very comfortable leaving the apartment after dark. Which has led to more boredom, and a little bit of loneliness, but it certainly beats the overexcitement of having something unfortunate happen.

As I think I mentioned in a different message, I've really been learning a huge amount about how revolutions work since I'm here. The thing that's been fascinating me most lately is how much everything really depends on how events are portrayed rather than reality….

It doesn't help that, as mentioned, the military's taken over control of all of the media. They shut down the channels they didn't like and arrested a lot of people (including, apparently, the entire staff of Al Jazeera Egypt). They also shut down the most commonly used TV channels for a couple of days…The odd result of all of this, though, is that even though I'm in Egypt, I've mostly been relying on Western media and Facebook for my news of what's actually happening on the streets here in Egypt….

After the ugliness of the past few days -- especially today -- the pendulum's starting to turn in the opposite direction, and more and more people are getting angry with the military (it didn't take long, did it?) But at this rate, who knows where the country is going to be in a week?

As you can imagine, this has made my job very exciting. I came to Egypt expecting my job as general manager of a language school to be a thrilling challenge. I did not come expecting, after one month, to work as a general manager of a language school in the middle of a popularly supported military coup. It's made for an incredibly busy and exciting week, distributing advice for how to stay safe in these times, constantly keeping tabs on where our students are, making sure that they know what's safe and what isn't, and deciding when to cancel classes and when to keep the school open. It's been a huge amount of responsibility on my end, but it's also been incredibly exciting. I've learned an awful lot about myself in the process, and I'm also happy to say that none of our students have had any experience in the streets that's caused them any harm or serious concern. Still, a number of you have observed that the safety situation in Egypt has taken a definite turn for the worse in the past week…

For all this, I'm deciding to stay here in Egypt at least until the end of the week before making any further decisions.

For everyone: spending so much time indoors when things get bad in the city.

July 9

To a concerned friend:

For now, I'm really convinced that the violence here in Egypt is still restricted to people who are looking for it. There haven't been any reports of anybody getting hurt or attacked who wasn't in or immediately near a demonstration….

I'm staying really closely informed on the situation here; I'm reading the news every hour (from Egyptian and Western media), and I'm in close contact with my Egyptian friends who have a lot more information about when and where the demonstrations are going to be. (I kind of have to do all of this, since it's my job to decide when the school's staying open and when we're closing early.)

The long and short of it is, so far, I think I've got as solid a grasp of my security situation here as I think it's possible to have. So please, don't worry too much about what I'm doing here! I promise, if foreigners start getting targeted, or anything like that, I'll be out of here like a bat out of hell.

July 10

To a Northwestern administrator:

…The military (sorry! The interim president) released a roadmap for elections in six months. There's a really good criticism of the document on the NYTimes today, but I'm also optimistic that it's a sign that the military knows that they have a limited amount of time before the people strongly object to their holding (overt) power here. The new prime minister is someone people seem to approve of. And I'm optimistic about the start of Ramadan. With any luck, we'll have a reprieve from the fighting and a better shot at people sitting down and talking. We'll see for now, but I'm definitely feeling better about things.

July 10

To several Northwestern professors:

Dear Professors...

…Thankfully, I'm living in a more quiet district of Cairo… It's all very peaceful and offers a pretty fantastic vantage point to see what's happening in the rest of the city. I've been working very long hours trying to keep the school I'm managing afloat, and I'm very happy to say that we haven't had a single incident with any of our students since the revolution began. Honestly, I think we're as safe and in control as one can possibly be in such an unstable setting.

It's now just 22 minutes before sundown on the first day of Ramadan. I've fasted out of solidarity with my friends, which means that it's now been almost exactly 16 hours since I've eaten or drunk anything. Not sure it's something I really want to keep doing into Ramadan, but my friends seem to appreciate it. Regardless, it's about time for me to get up and help set the table and do all of that, so I'll stop writing for now…. I look back very fondly on my experiences with you at NU, and I very much hope we're able to keep in touch.

July 11

To the American friend who had studied in Egypt:

…At least the violence seems to have subsided, and some of the stuff I've seen (the "Against Violence" campaign and stories of anti-Morsi demonstrators actually forming rings around pro-Morsi protectors after the massacre to protect them from the army and the police) actually makes me very hopeful about the Egyptian public. I'm just still worried that this coup could end up doing more damage than good for hopes for a more responsible and responsive government in Egypt.

July 15

Security update to students:

…it is with great relief that we inform you that the difficulties seem to have largely resolved themselves and, especially since the beginning of Ramadan, life in Egypt has returned to normal. Embassies which had previously closed have reopened. As such, we confidently announce that the school will remain open for coursework throughout the coming months, and we do not anticipate any difficulties for our students stemming from the political situation.

July 16

Another security update to students:

The past evening has seen a sudden rise in both urban violence in areas near student residences as well as anti-foreigner rhetoric. A number of sources have suggested that the instability could continue throughout the coming day. As such, we urge all students to exercise extreme caution outdoors today. For now, we intend to keep the school open and for classes to continue as scheduled. However, students who feel unsafe for any reason should stay indoors. Missed lessons will be made up at a later date.

If for any reason, you decide to go outdoors, please try to let us know in advance. In any situation, however, your security should come first.

July 16

To a concerned friend:

…I'm totally fine, though some of the fighting was actually a lot closer to my apartment than I'd have liked. I spent the morning at home, until it was clear that it was safe. We'll see what happens tonight.

As for Vienna…we'll see where the next few days go. Lately, whenever something bad has happened, the next few days have been pretty calm. Though I really wasn't expecting violence like this during Ramadan, so I really can't say what's going to happen.

July 18

To family and friends:

Warm greetings again from Egypt, where, despite the better judgment of many (most?) of you, I'm still staying put…. It's certainly been a dynamic week, with some positive ups and some definite downs as well. Happy to report, though, that the ups remain a good deal stronger, certainly at least for now. As uncertain as everything in this country is, nowadays, I'm keeping in good spirits, working hard, and, as odd as it is to say, with all the ugliness that's occurring, quite happy to be here…

The majority of this past week, as most of you probably know, stayed largely peaceful here in Egypt, up until only the last few days. I took advantage of the calmer period to go visit my old friends in Alexandria. As some of you know, these are some very dear Egyptians I've gotten to know very well over the past two and a half years. They don't speak a word of English, which means that I've learned a huge amount of Arabic just from them. They're from quite a poor background, which has given me a much more realistic insight into how a lot of Egyptians live their lives, which is a perspective I think a lot of Westerners who visit the region tend to miss….

For all the pessimism about the general state of affairs in Egypt right now, it's this sort of thing that constantly impresses me. There have been a number of occasions now where I've expected the whole country to devolve into violence. I was expecting a far more violent retaliation from the Islamic Brotherhood, when the military enacted their coup. But the bombings and attacks I was anticipating just didn't happen….

I've been incredibly impressed with how so many Egyptians have responded to the unrest of the past few weeks. I feel like it would have been easy for the country to have totally collapsed into civil violence at this stage, and there've been a number of opportunities for the situation to get worse quickly. Yet it hasn't -- not yet, anyway. After each bout of violence, there's been a period where the people have stepped back and deliberately refrained from going back to the same violence the following day. Will things stay as relatively peaceful as they have been? Of course, I can't know. In the short term, people are expecting this weekend to get ugly (and, as I'm writing this, I'm getting reports from some friends that some very large protests are sparking up downtown right now). Honestly, I'm more than a little worried to see what happens after Ramadan ends. Yet the Egyptian people have surprised me quite a bit, in a lot of ways, in the past several weeks. Though I'm certainly not willing to make the exceedingly optimistic claim that everything's going to be fine here, I'm also not willing to say that violence is the only possible future for the country. As always, I suppose, only time will tell.

In the meantime, though, I can promise to keep being smart (well, as smart as I ever have been, anyway), to stay in touch, and, as always, to stay as safe as I possibly can here in Egypt.

Best wishes to everyone,

Tim

Topics: People, Opinion