This story originally appeard on themedialine.org.
When Brian Dennison was considering where to study Arabic abroad, the 23-year old’s choices were limited. Yemen? It has an Al-Qa’ida affiliate that feasts on foreigners. Syria? It is enmeshed in a civil war where dodging fighter jet bombings is the latest fad. Saudi Arabia was too conservative and Lebanon too Western. Egypt seemed the perfect fit -- it was full of quality Arabic schools, Westerners with whom to socialize and ancient ruins at which to marvel. But the Virginia native’s dream took an unexpected turn last week when the country convulsed during its second revolution in as many years.
Since the end of the October 1973 war against Israel and Egypt’s tilt toward the United States, Americans have been eagerly welcomed in the country. For decades, Egyptians were happy to take their dollars and boast of the nation’s ancient history. All that changed during the 2011 revolution when the regime warned events were being driven by a foreign conspiracy in a last ditch attempt to retain its grip on power. Ever since, a xenophobic spell has seized a population willing to view every American as a spy.
Dennison was captivated by last week’s protests and drawn to downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demanded President Mohamed Morsi step down. He bought a shiny green laser pointer that has become the latest craze and draped himself in an Egyptian flag. For several days he camped out in Tahrir, spending nights listening to the heated debates. “It was like those Bob Dylan songs my parents always sang,” Dennison told The Media Line in a café on the posh island of Zamalek, an isolated corner of Cairo that is seemingly immune to the protests and the violence. “The protesters really believed they were going to make a new revolution. I felt safe with them.”
Other Americans attracted to the demonstrations were not as lucky. Twenty-one year old Kenyon College student Andrew Pochter was stabbed to death in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria during the early days of the protests. Pochter, who had come to Egypt to teach English, was reportedly killed after demonstrators asked him if he was American. It was the second time an American was knifed for the stars and stripes on his passport this year.
On May 9, Professor Chris Stone of Hunter College was stabbed outside the US Embassy in Cairo after he, too, was asked by an Egyptian if he was American. The assailant later told police he had traveled from his village to find an American to kill.
It was to avoid more such tragedies, the American Embassy issued travel alerts on June 28 and again on July 3, warning ‘US citizens to defer travel to Egypt and US citizens living in Egypt to depart at this time because of the continuing political and social unrest.’
Many resident Americans here heeded the warning and left the country. Among them was Sarah Taylor, a 28-year old aid worker who has been laboring in Cairo’s slums giving post-natal care to new mothers. “Things in Cairo were becoming too dangerous,” she said in a Skype conversation from Turkey. “People were beginning to do more than the customary staring. They were ogling me like I was meat to be ripped apart.” Taylor said that most of her friends left as well. “No one wants to end up a victim of a mob.”
Women like Taylor have more than just their nationality to worry about. Ever since the 2011 revolution when the police disappeared from the streets, gangs of men have roamed Cairo seeking female victims to molest. Gang rape has been common. “I was torn apart in Tahrir,” 24-year old Canadian Melinda Carson told The Media Line, describing the nightmare experience she suffered during an early round of protests against the army. “A bunch of guys ripped my clothes off and stuck their hands in me.”
Egypt is home to dozens of American organizations and institutes. It houses the largest American embassy in the world after the one in Baghdad. More than a quarter of the tenured faculty at the American University in Cairo is from the United States, as is its president, former Columbia University Professor Lisa Anderson. The exact number of Americans in Egypt is unknown, though a US diplomat here ventured that there are “at least 10,000.”
Despite the violence, American tourists are still trickling in,” says Marwan Jabari, vice president of Luxor Tours. “Some Americans don’t even see the protests in Tahrir. They head straight to the pyramids, spend a night in a five star hotel and go directly to the Valley of the Kings (in southern Egypt). They won’t ever hear of an American being attacked.”
Egyptians who hear stories about Americans being targeted turn their heads in sadness. “Our country loves Americans,” 43-year old Ahmad Katani told The Media Line. “Look at all the American products we have, pointing to a man drinking Coca-Cola before pointing at a McDonald’s restaurant just off Tahrir Square. “It’s just that everyone is whipped up these days and can’t trust anyone.”
Dennison, though, is willing to trust his Egyptian hosts. “I would go to Tahrir every day,” he says, biting into a poor Egyptian imitation of pizza. “Every country has dangers, but here, they are for the good of the country.”