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Quinnipiac Professor Leaves Egypt Just in Time

Cheshire resident Janet Bahgat, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University, took 19 students to Egypt in early January as part of her course on the Global Community.

Protestors in Egypt plan to hold their biggest show of force yet on Friday in Cairo's Tahrir Square, according to Huffington Post, in part in reaction to Google executive Wael Ghonim's release from 12 days of detention for his anti-government posts on Facebook.

The unrest, which  is now in its third week, occurred just days after Cheshire's Janet Bahgat returned from Egypt with students from Quinnipiac University.

“The students were shocked. They were all puzzled,” said Bahgat, an adjunct professor in the  university's English department. “It didn’t go along with their concept of Egypt and what they experienced."

While Americans were watching footage of the protests on television and tourists still in Egypt were scrambling for flights home, Bahgat was e-mailing her students, helping them make sense of the chaos in a country where they’d just enjoyed much of their winter break.

Bahgat has lived in Cheshire for more than 20 years, but has spent most of her life immersed in Egyptian culture. She taught English at the American University of Cairo in the 1970s and early 1980s and met her husband, an Egyptian national, while living there.

Bahgat said she organized the trip as part of her course entitled The Global Community: A Middle East Perspective, and said her goal was to expose the students to the Egypt she knew by allowing them to experience the people, language and customs. 

During the two-week trip in January, the 19 students toured the pyramids and the Aswan Dam, took a cruise on the Nile, haggled in bazaars and became local celebrities of sorts when Egyptian TV interviewed them during a soccer match. People were stopping them afterward asking for their autographs, Bahgat said.

Bahgat taught the students basic Arabic phrases to help them communicate. She said there were never any questions about safety or obvious signs of the impending revolt. Because tourism is a major industry for Egypt, she said a member of the Egyptian secret service accompanied the group during their visit.

“The trip was an incredible experience – absolutely incredible,” Bahgat said. “None of the students or I felt that there were any rumblings beforehand, or any fear. We always felt very safe and secure.”

Mathew Buono, a Quinnipiac junior from North Haven, said despite the recent violence, he felt safer traveling in Egypt than he did on a family trip to Aruba.

"I didn't notice any signs of unrest. It was shocking to come home and. . .days later hear about protests that had started in the area we were just in," he said. "I still can't believe that this is happening."

Looking back, however, Bahgat says there were a few clues to the mounting discontent with President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime. Locals were complaining about corruption in government and rising prices of food and commodities that were making it difficult for families to live, she recalled.

Bahgat said her husband has made only brief e-mail contact with relatives living near Cairo, who have told them not to worry. Although the telephone lines have remained open, Bahgat said the lines were jumbled and their calls ended up being connected to strangers.

Bahgat said she has cautioned her students not to judge the country based on media depictions of the conflict, which have included reports of widespread looting and gunfire.

She said Egyptians are peaceful people and the country has always been progressive and Westernized compared with many other Middle Eastern nations. She worries about people viewing the uprisings as just “another Middle Eastern disaster.”

“The only agenda that the people have is to peaceably get a change and to have a better life,” she said. “I’m politically neutral but I can understand how people want good government and basic human rights."

 “I’m trying to look at it through the eyes of the people,” she added. “People want family, they want smiles, good food, togetherness. A lot of people are curtailed from enjoying that.”

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