UI student returns home after witnessing Egyptian revolution
Dan Olinghouse is a revolutionary.
He may not look the part, dressed in a fleece jacket and drinking a double espresso — the closest thing he can find to an ’ahwa, or Egyptian coffee — in an Iowa City coffee shop.
But the third-year University of Iowa political-science major was one of thousands of protesters who filled Tahrir Square, calling for the departure of 30-year Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. He said he was thrilled at the Feb. 11 announcement of the president’s resignation, along with his Egyptian friends posting on Facebook.
But the country, he said, needs to be vigilant in continuing reform.
“At any moment, it could really turn back into the status quo,” Olinghouse said.
The 25-year-old Ankeny native was the lone UI student studying in the country during the revolution in Egypt.
He decided to see the Middle East after studying Arabic for one year at the UI. He enrolled in an independent one-year study-abroad course that took him to American University in Cairo.
After a holiday break in the United States, Olinghouse settled into an off-campus apartment just blocks from Tahrir Square on Jan. 23. His roommate, an Arabic professor, warned him immediately “things were going to get weird” when protests began on Jan. 25.
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And that day, Olinghouse sat at a coffee shop, watching as droves of protesters took over the square.
As people arrived, he said he began to help people over barriers, take pictures, and join groups maneuvering through the Egyptian police — who, Olinghouse said, were prepared for the protests.
The police had cracked down on previous protests with violence and torture. But this time, Egyptians realized too many eyes in the media were watching the country.
“[Protesters] broke that barrier of fear of the police,” Olinghouse said.
Maria Hope, the student’s study-abroad adviser, said the university cautions students not to go into the center of political unrest, but understood Olinghouse’s desire.
“I think it was probably irresistible for him to not walk away from the square,” Hope said.
Camped out in Tahrir Square, Olinghouse narrowly escaped being beaten by four pro-Mubarak supporters, including one he described as the “Hulk Hogan of Egypt.” He was attacked with tear gas and water cannons as he protested with groups. He spent hours conversing with members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
At one point, Olinghouse asked the camping protesters why they were encouraging people to pick up trash in a notoriously unclean city.
“Before, it was Mubarak’s. Now, it’s ours,” he said the protesters told him. “It’s our country, and we want it to be clean.”
The UI student’s family, initially supportive when he decided to stay in Cairo, became more concerned as news from Egypt came to the U.S.
One day, Olinghouse heard gun battles and explosions on the road near his apartment. He decided if the situation didn’t improve by the morning, he would have to leave.
And nothing changed. He packed his bags, left a note for his apartment mate, and managed to find a taxi to the airport.
Days later, Mubarak resigned. Olinghouse said he wanted to return to finish his aborted study abroad, but he thought he gained more from the protesting experience.
“I think I got a great education in those 10 days that I’d gladly pay a semester for,” he said.
UI law Professor Adrien Wing said Egypt’s future is still uncertain. Several factors, including the army’s power and a young generation lacking a history of democratic governance, could produce instability.
Yet the revolutionary wave is apparent throughout the Middle East.
“I think the momentum is too big,” Wing said. “I think it’s going to ripple into these countries, no matter what these regimes try to do to prevent that.”
As for Olinghouse, finding classes in Iowa City was a struggle.
For now, he’s home looking for a haircut and a new pair of glasses.
The frames of his glasses, broken before he even landed in Egypt, are held together by thin slices of a Coca-Cola can he welded together with a lighter.
But his handiwork, he noted, did survive a revolution.
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