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Unrest erupts in Egypt

Contributed Laura Peck was on a tour of Egypt with the band from Augustana College when the protests started. This picture was taken overlooking Cairo during a sightseeing tour.1 / 3
Barbi Bursch-Eysselinck took in the sights at El Khalil Khan, an outdoor market in Cairo, the day before the protests started.2 / 3
Contributed Mike Troy is pictured enjoying the sights at an outdoor market in Cairo the day before the protests started.3 / 3

While people back home were worried sick, Laura Peck was playing cards and hanging out by the pool.

It's not exactly the scenario Americans envision when they think of someone trapped in the turmoil that has erupted in Egypt. But Peck was lucky.

The college freshman, daughter of Roger and Gwen Peck of Alexandria, was touring Egypt with the band from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She and her fellow band members had the protection of a guide - and they were able to leave before the demonstrations deviated from peaceful.

Peck's band left for Egypt on January 10, with plans to return on January 30. They spent a couple days in Cairo, traveled to Alexandria, Luxor and Assuit. The tour culminated in a return to Cairo on January 26, the day after the peaceful demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak had begun.

The band's hotel was in the heart of Cairo, and when they got back, Peck suspected something was going on.

"The first indication that something was wrong was the traffic," Peck said. "It was a three-lane highway and there must have been five rows of cars, people going the wrong way, sideways. We didn't know what was going on."

They also saw crowds of people milling past their hotel Wednesday and Thursday, and they drove by a government building flanked by protestors and police officers. From Peck's perspective, at that point officers were there to protect, not to subdue.

"They [protestors] were standing with their signs talking," Peck said. "It was extremely peaceful. We didn't see any violence."

But by Friday morning, concerns were growing. The band was told to nix their sightseeing plans and move out of the heart of the city. They ended up in a five-star hotel on the outskirts near the airport.

"We were probably some of the safest people in the city," Peck said. "We knew that if something bad was coming toward us, a guide would let us know."

A flight they had on Saturday was canceled, and the band waited at the hotel, unsure of what chaos raged nearby. All they knew was what was on the news. Because they were only able to leave to go to a gas station across the street, the group played cards and sat by the pool, waiting and wondering.

Their guides secured a flight for Monday, January 31. At the airport, Peck experienced the most unnerving part of the trip.

"There was a literal sea of people. It was elbow to elbow with people and everyone wants to get to the front of the line at the same time and you will do just about anything to get there," she said, adding that their guide had to offer a bribe so they could make it through the security check. "There was also so much tension in the room. It wasn't that it was scary, just extremely overwhelming."

By noon Monday, Peck was finally on a plane bound for the safety of the U.S. But not without witnessing firsthand the effects of repressive government and the poverty that ensues.

"They are very angry with the elections because Mubarak gets 99 percent of the vote but you can't find a single person who voted for him," she said. "There is a lot of corruption. Most everyone is poor. They can hardly afford food to eat."

She also learned that within a turbulent country are the people who only want justice.

"They don't want violence, they just want change," she said. "They are fed up with how they have been treated."

Not easily deterred

Unlike Peck, Mike Troy and Barbi Bursch-Eysselinck, residents of the Miltona area, are seasoned world travelers.

Bursch-Eysselinck lived in Egypt from 1985 to 2008 and raised her children there. Troy worked for the Seattle Police Department for 18 years, two of those in the Intelligence Unit working undercover against a Maoist revolutionary group that preached violent overthrow of the U.S. government.

The pair left for Egypt on January 23, with plans to stay for three months.

"We came for the winter to enjoy the Egyptian countryside, sea and sun," Bursch-Eysselinck said in an e-mail.

Accommodations their first days in Cairo were in the city center - chaotic, bustling and an eclectic mingling of classes and cultures.

"Everything was wonderful. Streets were bustling, we spent hours walking through the open air markets," Troy said of the atmosphere upon their arrival.

After moving to an apartment in the suburbs a few days later, the city erupted. Instead of their plans to drink in the sights of the city, they found themselves in the middle of significant political upheaval.

Both point to the repressive government as the cause of the unrest. "I can't say enough about the average Egyptian citizen who has suffered economically all the time I've lived here with constant worsening of their life situation," Bursch-Eysselinck said. "The government has not supported the average man or woman to any degree."

"They all know it is because of a faulty government," Troy agreed, noting the marked increase in poverty since he was last there 18 months ago. "They also know that it is a regime that cannot be trusted and really cares only about the [government]. The people are nothing to them but fodder. It's amazing to see how repressive the Egyptian government is to its people."

The two have witnessed peaceful, non-violent demonstrations led by a "mixed bag of people," not religious or political zealots, merely the common citizen trying to bring about change. Troy surmises that the protests that have turned violent were incited by police confrontations.

A curfew has been imposed for 12 hours at night. Bursch-Eysselinck finds this reassuring, although in their neighborhood there have been no protests. Troy showed his solidarity by helping neighbors protect the building from looting at night with his only weapon - a bamboo rod.

For a few days, Internet and phone access were shut down, but "sporadic" connections have been resumed. Television and telephone access have also been re-established, through which information is widely dispersed.

Travelers not familiar with Egypt, its culture, language and social laws, have opted to leave; and most foreigners, especially Americans, have been asked to leave for their own safety. But Troy and Bursch-Eysselinck feel they are not in any danger.

"We are quite adventurous and not easily deterred," Troy wrote. "We are both intent on staying."

"It has been tense, heartbreaking, heartwarming and occasionally humorous," Bursch-

Eysselinck agreed. "I think we'll hang around."

Kindness in adversity

The three Egyptian travelers' experiences are completely different. Peck - an innocent college student seeing the world for the first time; Troy - an ex-police officer who has seen the worst in people; Bursch-Eysselinck - a loyal one-time citizen who has been immersed in the culture and people of Egypt for years.

But they all agree that it comes down to one thing - the people of Egypt, their quest for a caring, stable government, their chance to be heard, and their hope for economic stability and a future of freedom from repression. They all feel strongly that they are a people who deserve no less.

"Their humor, stoicism and hospitality have never wavered," Bursch-Eysselinck said.

"They are so caring. They are some of the nicest people I have ever met," Peck concluded. "I cannot think of people who are more deserving of a better government."