On Nov. 23, Georgetown student Derrik Sweeney (COL ’13) was arrested in Cairo, Egypt, on allegations of throwing Molotov cocktails at police during a protest in Tahrir Square. He and three other American students were detained and released from jail on Nov. 25. Sweeney returned to his home in Missouri a day later.
In Egypt and in the U.S., Sweeney’s arrest raised questions about the safety of other students studying at American University in Cairo, where Sweeney was studying. Such safety concerns had arisen in the past, and in January, Georgetown students studying in Cairo were evacuated to Georgetown’s campus in Doha, Qatar.
Stephanie Young (SFS ’13), another Georgetown student studying abroad in Cairo, chose to remain discreet in her behavior on the streets of the city.
“I am a little more wary telling people on the streets that I attend Georgetown University because there have been rumors going around of Americans being searched more by the police…and I do not want to draw unnecessary attention to myself,” Young wrote in an email.
Alice Maglio (COL ’13), another student studying at AUC, says that she does not feel any less safe than she did before the arrest.
“I am confident that as long as I avoid potential dangerous areas of Cairo, such as Tahrir Square, I will be perfectly safe,” she wrote in an email.
This sentiment echoes the recommendations that the Office of International Programs and State Department give students before studying abroad. Students are cautioned to avoid protests in effort to prevent situations like Sweeney’s.
Amin Bonnah, a professor in Georgetown’s Arabic department, believes that students should not completely stay away from protests. He cautioned students to “be careful,” and stressed that “this is an experience that they live through, but [they should] use their judgment, not to go too far, and blend in with the local situation.”
Bonnah also reminded students that the legal systems abroad are very different from that of the United States. Students “can easily forget that the kind of constitutional law [and] rules that arrange life for Americans here don’t apply there,” he said.
Sweeney discovered this first hand. Of his first night in jail, the student said that he felt “kind of outside the legal process,” and was struck multiple times on the head. His situation improved after the first day, and Sweeney said that he felt as though he was being questioned fairly during his trial.
The reactions to Sweeney’s arrest have been varied. While virtually all are pleased to see him come home, there is a disparity in opinions as to whether or not he exercised the best of judgment.
“When I first heard about Derrik’s arrest, I was very concerned that he had jeopardized my position at AUC, as well as the position of all other Georgetown students here,” Maglio wrote in an email. “I was concerned that Georgetown would decide to evacuate us as a result of Derrik’s precarious situation. When he decided to go to Tahrir, he was not only staking his own position at AUC, but irresponsibly staking the position of all Georgetown students.”
On Sunday, Assistant Vice President of Communications Stacy Kerr sent out an e-mail saying that Egypt’s current political situation is being closely monitored, and that “at this time we anticipate continued normal operation of the fall semester program.” Kerr said that they would continue to monitor travel recommendations from the State Department and the AUC.
Both Young and Maglio said that they had been personally contacted by representatives from the Office of International Programs, asking about their current situation and also warning them to stay away from any dangerous situations.
While Sweeney’s arrest was shocking, Young still is enjoying her time in Egypt with all of the political excitement.
“Egypt is making history now, and as someone in the SFS, it is amazing to be able to be in the Egypt as it is transitioning from Mubarak’s regime to a democracy,” she wrote.