Matt Wilcheck, ΩΔ ’12, On Watching History Unfold in Egpyt
Monday, March 14, 2011
Posted by: Teri Forsythe
Matt Wilcheck, ΩΔ ’12, On Watching History Unfold in Egpyt
Protesters massing in the streets, hundreds of riot-geared police blockading roads and armed Egyptian military patrolling local roads and highways with tanks. These were not the sites that Omega Delta Brother Matt Wilchek '12 planned on seeing when he enrolled at the American University in Cairo for a semester-long study abroad program.
After wanting to travel to the Middle East for quite some time, Wilchek was excited to arrive in Cairo on the evening of January 21st.
"When I first got there I thought everything was so surreal. I was kind of prepared for the culture shock because George Mason is a pretty diverse school,” Wilchek says, but he admits that he was in no way prepared for everything that he would witness in just a few short days.
While many of his peers had traveled to Egypt with friends, Wilchek was the only George Mason student in his program and knew no one in Cairo. Wilchek arrived at his dormitory in Zamalek, a residential district of Cairo just north of downtown Cairo, and quickly saw evidence of the cultural differences. He and the other AUC students were presented with a number of rules prohibiting any drinking and mixing with those of the opposite sex, rules that could quickly result in expulsion from the program.
Wilchek excitedly began student orientation the next day and registered to visit the pyramids later that week. He was sure that this experience was going to be everything he had hoped it would, but things soon began changing in a way no one would have expected.
"On January 24th everyone started saying there were supposed to be some kind of protests on the 25th, but none of us were really worried,” Wilchek explains. However, he soon began to realize that the situation may become a bit more than he expected. "On the morning of the 25th my roommate and I went downtown and saw hundreds and hundreds of police preparing tear gas and blockading roads.”
Upon seeing thousands of people pouring into Tahrir Square, he thought he had seen the worst of it but later found out that the worst was yet to come. Wilchek learned that now former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had plans to shut off all phone lines and internet connection to control communication among protestors. He immediately called his parents to tell them he may be out of reach for a few days and assure them that he was safe and staying in Egypt.
Soon the RAs in his dorm announced that all trips had been cancelled for the week and students were given the option to leave the off-campus dormitory and move to one on campus, which was around 40 minutes away from where he was staying in Zamalek. Wilchek packed immediately and was in on-campus housing later that day.
Soon after, the nationwide curfew went into effect, but it did not deter the thousands of protestors throughout Cairo. With the curfews in place, Wilchek was very happy that he had moved to campus where he had some freedom to leave his dorm, a freedom he would not have had if he had stayed in his building in Zamalek.
On January 28th, phone lines were reconnected, but the protests had only gotten worse. Rumors of undercover police arresting protestors were rampant, and the army had closed off all of the major landmarks and museums. Wilchek was able to call his parents who urged him to visit the US Embassy to request a flight back to the United States. Still, Wilchek felt that he was far enough away from the protests that he could wait it out. However, when he learned that classes would be postponed for some time, Wilchek began to consider leaving.
He called the US Embassy and was informed of the pending evacuation of American citizens that would take place the next day, on Monday, January 29th.
"That's when I realized how serious it all was. I was witnessing a civil war,” Wilchek says.
While on the way to the airport, Wilchek saw the true magnitude of the protests. He saw the Egyptian army carrying M16 guns. At least 20 tanks blocked highways and gas stations. These streets were a war zone.
When Wilchek arrived at the airport, he saw that the US Embassy had set up a terminal separate from the main airport building where what seemed like thousands of people were waiting to get home. Homeland Security was directing the hordes of people and distributing water, but Wilchek and his friends were given no food for the nine hours they spent waiting for a flight. Finally, at around 10:00 PM, he boarded his flight to Istanbul, Turkey, looking forward to seeing his friends and family back home.
"This was my first time out of the country really. I couldn't believe the way this whole thing turned out,” Wilchek said when thinking about how his trip had put him on the frontlines of history and now in another foreign country he had never dreamed of visiting. From Istanbul, Wilchek booked a flight to New York where his family excitedly met him, grateful he was home and safe.
Once home, Wilchek had the opportunity to watch the news coverage of the protests and see the true magnitude of what had been going on around him. He was happy to see things turn out well for the Egyptian people who had been nothing but gracious throughout his trip, apologizing to him and his friends as they fought for freedom. "They kept telling us they wanted us to be able to stay, but this was the time in their history when they could stand up for themselves.”
Wilchek admits this trip is something he will never forget, and he is extremely grateful for the support he received from his Omega Delta Brothers throughout. "I was able to talk to a few of my Brothers while I was over there, and they were really supportive of my decision to come back,” Wilchek says. About his return to the Lodge at George Mason he says, "I got lots of hugs. It felt like I was back with my good group of friends, and I was very glad I came back.”
Wilchek never expected his semester abroad would turn out as it did, but experiencing history in the making first-hand is something he will take with him throughout his life. Seeing the love and support poured on him by family, friends, and Brothers has only made him that much more appreciative of the experience.