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Out of Africa

Barry McNamara
02/08/2011
Anthony Perzigian
The last few months of Anthony Perzigian’s life haven’t quite gone according to plan.

Plans were still looking good on Sept. 1 last year, when Perzigian, a 1966 Monmouth College graduate and a member of MC’s board of trustees, stepped down after 14 years as provost at the University of Cincinnati.

He was looking to, as he put it, “take a leave for a spell,” but that spell was short-lived. A colleague at the University of Cincinnati told him about an exciting opportunity in Egypt, working with the colleague as a co-adviser to the chairman of the board of trustees at Future University in Cairo, a private college that was founded in 2006.

Perzigian’s Plan B was focused on helping to “raise the bar” of Egyptian higher education.

“The government universities are suffering – they’re not keeping up,” he explained. “There’s more competition in the higher education market. My colleague and I were there to incorporate American higher education practices, get programs accredited and get it as close to the American model as possible. We felt nothing but welcomed there, and we were getting a lot done. I’m so disappointed that we had to leave.”

Perzigian elaborated on the sentiment toward Americans in Egypt in this time of great turmoil.

“This is not 1979 in Iran,” he said. “It’s nothing like that at all. I never had the impression that I was looked at as the Great Satan. The whole purpose I was there was to copy what America is doing. There were no American flags burning. There was a little impatience about when Obama would act, but it’s a delicate situation, and there are a lot of variables there. Overall, there was a sentiment that world leaders could do a little more.”

Perzigian and wife, Donna, had arrived in Egypt in mid-December. For the first two weeks, they were “escorted from one end of the country to the other – we saw everything.” Highlights included the “awesome” Pyramids of Giza and the “breathtaking” Nile River, and Perzigian was also amazed by Cairo itself.

“The energy and the excitement and the pulse of Cairo – it was like nothing I’d ever experienced,” he said. “It’s the loudest, most congested, most exhilarating place I’ve seen.”

The congestion comes from Cairo’s staggering population of 22 million, making it one of the most densely populated places on the planet.

“I would never dare to drive there,” he said. “It’s organized chaos.”

On Jan. 25, Perzigian was in his usual non-driving mode, having been picked up by a university driver to go to his office. He was planning to take advantage of a national holiday in Egypt – Police Day – and apply his “Protestant work ethic” in a relatively quiet workplace. That’s when his Plan B began to unravel.

“I got a call from my colleague. When I told him I was headed into work, he exclaimed, ‘You have to go to indoors!’ My driver didn’t speak English, so I handed the phone to him, and the next thing I knew, we had made a U-turn and were headed back to the compound.”

Perzigian and his wife had planned to go shopping later in the day. That shopping center wound up being completely destroyed due to widespread looting.

“They even took the air conditioners off the roof,” Perzigian said.

With the situation getting out of hand, the Egyptian government began offering evacuation flights on Jan. 31.

“That was not a very appealing choice,” Perzigian explained. “You were not told where the flight was going to go. It might be Cyprus or Turkey or Greece. Once you got there, you had to take care of your own arrangements, and you were asked to reimburse the government for the flight.”

Additionally, Perzigian said, passengers were only allowed one bag.

“We had packed for several months, and because we didn’t perceive any immediate harm, we decided against the evacuation flights. A couple thousand people did take them.”

“Immediate harm” became a little more real on Feb. 2, when President Mubarak “unleashed the thugs,” said Perzigian. “It was a pretty bad day. You might have seen the shots of men on camels and horses, wielding spiked clubs, and of men on rooftops, throwing concrete slabs and Molotov cocktails. We decided we should come home – briefly.”

Even the Perzigians’ trip home from Egypt didn’t go as planned. It took them 40 hours to get from Cairo to Cincinnati, due in large part to a canceled flight in Chicago.

“We are really saddened to leave, but trust things will normalize enough to allow our return soon,” he said.

When interviewed on Feb. 7, Perzigian noted, “Banks are open again, shops are open again. There is some return to normalcy. But, of course, Mubarak hasn’t stepped down yet.”

As he looks back on his seven weeks in Egypt, Perzigian notes, “Egyptians are warm, hospitable, friendly people. I was really struck by that. The country was very shaken by the prisoners that were released and by the looting. The city was very traumatized. But we saw the true Egyptian spirit come out. People were helping others, and neighborhood patrols were started.”

And, like it or not, the Perzigians had a front row to seat to history.

“We couldn’t have been in a place with more of an historical context playing out,” he said.