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Egypt: One Year After the Uprising

Oregon Law alumna Carolyn Pohlman '82 offers a firsthand account

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Boom, Boom.

All night, Carolyn Pohlman listened to the sound of the guns going off in the distance. During the day, she could smell the tear gas wafting up her balcony on the Corniche, which runs along the Nile in Cairo, Egypt. Left with neither Internet nor cell phone service—the Egyptian government shut down digital communication—Pohlman felt isolation setting in. It was Friday, January 28, 2011, just days after the 2011 revolution in Egypt began and all hell was breaking loose. 

The 2011 revolution in Egypt began one year ago, with demonstrations in Tahrir Square, on January 25. Carolyn Pohlman, Oregon Law alumna, class of 1982, was there to witness the events unfold.

After graduating from Oregon Law, Pohlman relocated to Seattle where she was a civil litigator and prosecutor. She then moved to Cairo six years ago, where she now teaches English as a Foreign Language to adults.

During the 2011 revolution, Pohlman lived in Toraa, a suburb of Cairo, which is made up of a cross-section of poor and middle-class Egyptians and one foreigner — her. Toraa is located only 9 miles from Tahrir Square, the epicenter for the revolution demonstrations. Very few people speak English, which compounded her isolation. Pohlman’s television, however, thankfully was still broadcasting and she followed the events of the Tahrir protests on CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera English with fascination and amazement.

According to Pohlman, everyone knew there was going to be a demonstration in Tahrir Square, a name of Arabic origin meaning “liberation,” but no one thought that protesters would actually show up. “Egyptians were notoriously apolitical and content to let the status quo (graft, corruption, civil rights violations) continue,” said Pohlman.

After the first day of demonstrations; however, Pohlman saw that Egyptians were no longer content with the established regime and that the violence was starting to increase. Police began to show their true colors to the protesters—with tear gas and liberal use of nightsticks.

In the days that followed, the streets, which usually were packed, became more and more empty and resources became hard to secure. Pohlman, who had run out of cash, was at a loss; ATMs were out of money. “My world was becoming progressively smaller,” said Pohlman. “And I was becoming progressively nervous.”

Pohlman ran into some friends while trying to secure cash; they rather nervously, discussed their options. While her friends with children were making plans to leave the country, Pohlman and another single woman agreed—they would be staying.

On Friday, January 28 2011, the situation in Tahrir erupted. The police were attacking protestors in earnest and the prevalence of fear, perpetuated under the old regime, was left behind as the young demonstrators fought back. The violence began to spread to outlying areas – including the street in front of Pohlman’s apartment. A mob threw rocks at the building next to hers and tried to storm the building. With the violence getting closer and closer to home, Pohlman fled to a friend’s house in a safer location.

However, by Sunday, the U.S. State Department was urging U.S. citizens to evacuate the country. Many Americans did seek evacuation — an estimated 52,000 U.S. citizens lived and worked in the country at the time. It was then, due to increasingly violent protests, including attacks on foreigners, and lack of funds, that Pohlman decided to accept the U.S. State Department’s offer of voluntary evacuation from Egypt to a “safe haven,” for an unknown amount of money.

After leaving Egypt, Pohlman found herself in Nicosia, Turkish Cyprus, in order to catch a plane to Istanbul, Turkey. From there she continued on to Regensburg, Germany, then to Milan, Italy, where she inally took a plane home to Cairo.

Although evacuating Egypt during the 2011 revolution was difficult for Pohlman, now, one year later, she is proud of the progress of the Egyptian people. “Their excitement and pride at voting was touching,” said Pohlman. “People talk politics all the time. Before Tahrir, there was no point in doing so. [Former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak’s party always would win and you could be arrested for any sort of dissent.”

Despite continuing insecurity in Egypt, Pohlman plans to continue living and working in Cairo, due to her love for the country and her love for teaching English. “The day to day of life stays the same, but the air of uncertainty continues,” said Pohlman.

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