RALEIGH — Caroline Zullo will always remember where she was when the Egyptian Army announced it had ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
The UNC-Chapel Hill junior was sitting in front of a television set in the common area of her dorm – in downtown Cairo. Zullo was surrounded by Egyptian students and professors, cafeteria workers and security guards, all of them eager for news of what would come next for their country.
When the announcement finally came, the room exploded with cheers. Zullo watched as people poured into the streets to celebrate.
“It was a night I’ll never forget,” she said. “It was amazing.”
Zullo, 19, had arrived in Cairo at the beginning of June for an intensive course in Arabic, which she had been studying for the past two years. Zullo graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School and is a political science and global studies major at UNC.
As a recipient of a federal fellowship for her summer coursework, Zullo could choose the country where she wanted to study. There were options with more stable political situations than Egypt, but Zullo knew she wanted to study at the American University in Cairo.
“I wanted to be in a place where the Arab history, culture and language are so rich,” she said.
From the moment she arrived, Zullo said it was clear tensions were rising in anticipation of the protests planned for the end of the month. She and other foreign students couldn’t travel as widely as they had hoped, and the tumult of the past two years was clear in things like fuel and water shortages. Classes were canceled for the first day of the protest two weeks in advance.
But there was plenty of time to get to know the Egyptian students and professors she studied with and to learn their perspectives on what was happening. Zullo said that regardless of class, economic or religious differences among those she talked to, one thing was clear: “They want a president who’s actually going to put the interests of the people first.”
As the protests gained momentum, Zullo made a trip to Tahrir Square, the site of the massive protests that were part of the revolution against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Zullo would have been riveted by the news coming out of Egypt no matter where she was in the world, but she wanted to see it for herself, especially to feel the strong emotions of the protesters.
“Being there and being able to see it made it much more real,” she said.
Zullo said that in some ways it was a difficult decision to go to the protests. While she never feared for her safety, she wondered about taking in such a momentous event as an observer, compared with the Egyptian people who couldn’t just hop on a plane and leave.
“I’m only there for so long, and I leave,” she said. “And I’m not unaffected, but all of these people in Egypt are living through this and will continue living through this.”
Zullo said that watching as the situation in Egypt has turned violent, without a clear resolution in sight, has been upsetting, but she’s hopeful for the people she met and all Egyptians who are striving to improve their country.
“I do think in time that they’ll be able to achieve the democracy that they’re looking for,” she said.
As for Zullo, her time in Egypt has cemented her interest in international affairs, which she hopes to pursue as a career. And in the meantime, while she completes her degree, she’ll have the memories of the convenience store owner who was so friendly to students, the students who were eager to show off their country to visitors; and the bustling streets of downtown Cairo. And, of course, the thousands of people filling Tahrir Square, waving their signs and flags and hoping for something better.
“That’s something you can’t recreate in a textbook,” she said.