News / People

Alum recounts ouster of Mubarak

DU alumna Annie Kinkel, seen putting on a green bandana in this photo from Jan. 28, 2011, was studying in Cairo, Egypt, on a Fulbright Scholarship during the ouster of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Photo: Ben Robinson

Helpful tip: Oil is better than water.

At the beginning of the year, DU alumna Annie Kinkel had been living in Cairo, Egypt, for about four months. A Fulbright scholar, she came to the country for extensive archival research for her PhD in history from Rutgers University.

She didn’t envision that, in January, she would be on intimate terms with tear gas: how it first singes the throat and then, upon breathing it in, the way the eyes burn unforgivingly.

The best remedy?

“Oil is better for tear gas, which is aggravated by water,” Kinkel says.

Kinkel was in the middle of historic and traumatic protests in Egypt that led the county’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to resign his office and hand over control to the military earlier this year.

Kinkel related the events of those days to DU Today.  

Most Egyptian citizens had Jan. 25 — known as Police Day — off. The day is a jubilant occasion for a country used to the six-day workweek.

Despite the holiday, though, leisure seemed curtailed that day. Kinkel was in Cairo’s Ma’adi neighborhood meeting a friend in the Hotel Belle Epoque’s restaurant. Kinkel’s dissertation research focuses on the predominantly Egyptian and cosmopolitan neighborhood, where her friend’s family has lived for generations.

Kinkel also lived in Ma’adi, which is seven miles south of downtown Cairo and the center of the action, Tahrir Square. Although a world away from DU and Kinkel’s hometown of Longmont, Colo., Ma’adi remained eerily quiet even as social networking websites were spurring the downtown protests.

“You wouldn’t have known anything was different,” Kinkel says, “except that as the action grew in Tahrir, our streets got quieter and quieter.”

In the subsequent days, rumors circulated through Ma’adi: the protests just several miles away had grown to 50,000, the tear gas caused the death of someone with asthma, and more.

Kinkel knew that the Egyptian government would be eager to portray the presence of foreigners such as herself as discrediting the overall cause. However, Kinkel and others wanted to help. From everything she had seen, she regarded the protestors as peaceful. She was particularly struck by the daily prayers.

“The demonstrators themselves, for the most part, were quite adamant about remaining peaceful,” Kinkel says. “I think the images of the call to prayer speak to that — that millions would bow down five times a day in the face of military force is remarkable.”

On Jan. 28, Kinkel and other Ma’adi denizens decided that if they couldn’t participate in the protests, they could assist in other ways … So began one of the scariest days of the revolution for Kinkel.

In the morning, the Internet stopped working. Later, cell phones could neither send nor receive calls, rendering them “glorified pocket watches,” as Kinkel puts it.

She and her neighbors gathered provisions — water, medical supplies — to take to downtown Cairo. They were planning to base themselves in an apartment building a mile away from the demonstration. Even as they arrived, things were deteriorating quickly.

“It was clear that things were more intense than we had anticipated,” Kinkel says.

The porter of the building didn’t want them there, and an argument ensued in the stairwell. Outside, police used water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas. Protestors tried to take refuge in the apartment building to escape the tear gas. It didn’t work.

Kinkel wet a handkerchief and tied it around her face as she ran through the building, seeing where she could do the most good. It was chaotic: men, women and children writhed in pain. Kinkel ran back and forth, fetching cotton, tissue, oil, antiseptic, whatever was needed.

“In my memory now, the ground floor is a brightly colored blur, punctuated by faces,” Kinkel wrote in her blog. “A man who had been shot just below the nose with a rubber bullet, and his friend applying ice and antiseptic. A middle-aged woman who staggered to stand and cried out to the people around her. A girl asking me for ‘Kleenex.’ A man, looking exhausted, face red and tear-stained. A little boy, perhaps the boab’s [porter’s] son, who told me his name was Ahmed.”

The crowd eventually thinned as those who initially took sanctuary in the apartment building apparently decided it was unwise to stay in one place.

Kinkel and her neighbors soon discovered why: the riot police were advancing toward the building.

Kinkel and the other women took cover in a second-floor apartment, while the men had to make do with a more vulnerable spot on a landing. The women watched from a bedroom window and saw the police coming toward the building. They hoped the police wouldn’t notice them. The fear was palpable as they saw them stop and enter.

Kinkel prayed. These were the very men who had wrought the destruction they dealt with minutes earlier, and their actions today were already unpredictable and unprecedented. Even if she wasn’t physically harmed in the building, Kinkel thought, what could happen if she were arrested was too terrifying to contemplate. They could hear the police climbing the stairs.

Kinkel and the others were relieved when the police simply ordered them to gather their things and leave. They probably hadn’t been there an hour.

Eventually, Kinkel was able to get in touch with her family via a landline. The Fulbright program evacuated Kinkel and others on Feb. 2, though other foreigners opted to stay behind. Kinkel went to England, where she stayed for two and a half months and continued her research.

She returned to Cairo in mid April for six weeks to wrap up her research and will make her way back to Rutgers in July.

Not only is she resolute in finishing the academic work she started in Cairo, the events of January have strengthened her emotional connection to Egypt and its people.

“We still don’t know where this will go, and what will happen,” Kinkel says, “but so far the Egyptians have remained vigilant for their cause and that is worth recognizing and celebrating.”

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *