Yesterday, three American students were arrested in Cairo for participating in riots that have to date killed 38. A spokesman at the justice ministry claims that the three were throwing Molotov cocktails from the top of an American University in Cairo building near Tahrir Square. The three are studying in Egypt this semester at the AUC as part of their respective home universities’ study abroad programs.

“They’re 19-year-old political tourists in a foreign fight,” writes Martin Kramer, Wexler-Fromer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Does AUC have a policy prohibiting US students from demonstrating? If not, why not?”

As an AUC alumnus, a graduate of the school’s Arabic Language Institute (ALI), I’m not sure if the school has a policy, but presumably their home institutions do. At least the University of California, Berkeley had one when one of its students studying at the AUC entangled himself in a foreign conflict back in 2002.

Robert was a quiet 21-year-old Berkeley undergrad who had enrolled at the AUC’s ALI for the spring session. Until April of that year, he was best known for bringing classes to a halt with questions about grammar that had been explained in grammar class, which Robert consistently skipped. Everything changed for Robert during spring break, when the wariness and discomfort that generally greeted his presence turned into something else. In Israel that spring, Robert became an AUC legend.

On April 2, 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces went into Bethlehem as a part of Operation Defensive Shield to round up Palestinian fighters. A firefight ensued and many of the Palestinians, including members of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity, built over the cave believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. As the standoff continued, a number of Western activists volunteered to take food and supplies to the fugitives, and effectively served as human shields. Traveling all the way from Cairo during the school’s brief spring vacation, Robert was among them.

When news of his adventure reached the Cairo campus, it struck the school’s various communities in different ways. The American students, for instance, thought it was consistent with his general demeanor—perhaps, some suggested, he didn’t mean to be there and had just wandered in by accident. One wag wondered if Robert’s attendance wasn’t more likely to prolong the standoff and delay negotiations—just as he similarly derailed classes with unrelated questions.

The Egyptian teachers, however, forgot all about the sullen boy who came to their classes unprepared—Robert was now a hero. One teacher asked why more Americans weren’t angered that a Christian holy site was under attack. It was lost on most of the students why Muslims firing from inside a site regarded as holy so obviously warranted more sympathy than the Jews positioned outside firing upon it.

In the end, after 39 days, the Palestinians were exiled, some to Gaza, others to Jordan— Israeli snipers had already killed seven of the fugitives. Robert was held in an Israeli prison for a few days before he was released and sent home to America. Berkeley tossed him out of the school’s education abroad program, and the AUC took no official action. The school reprimanded him publicly, but privately there was a good deal of support for the enlightened young American who’d thrown himself in the middle of someone else’s conflict.

Of course, things are very different today. The AUC, for instance, can no longer presume that the region’s political winds will leave it untouched. After all, this is the alma mater of Suzanne Mubarak, the former first lady of Egypt, and of her two sons Gamal and Alaa’, who are now detained by the ruling authorities. As one of the citadels of American soft power in Egypt, the AUC is unlikely to impress many of the protestors who have again taken to the streets as one of the country’s more useful institutions.

The AUC, where annual tuition fees there exceed the yearly salaries of most Egyptians by ten times or more, was typically a finishing school for the country’s elite. It is where the scions of the regime went to receive the credentials, i.e. American-style degrees, that enabled them to do business with other elites. But since the January 25 revolution that brought down Mubarak, the upper classes have sought safer shores for their money, which they may soon be following in flight from the violence and chaos. And if the old regime collapses entirely, the AUC may also be a casualty.

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