By Tas Anjarwalla, Emily Hoefer, Desiree Murphy and Amy Smith
Egypt's political situation was already deteriorating when University of South Carolina students Edward Walsh and Matthew Short began their studies at the American University in Cairo.
Protest rumors spread during orientation. But Walsh and Short wrote in an email that professors failed to predict the coming revolt.
On Jan. 25, Police Day in Egypt, Short was visiting friends in Alexandria and Walsh was on a tour of old Cairo.
Walsh said the protests were not noticeable. After two days he thought the situation had subsided and he traveled to Alexandria to join Short. On Jan. 27, one day before the widespread Friday protests began, as the train passed Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolt, Walsh noticed an enormous police presence, but no protestors.
Walsh and Short reunited in Alexandria that night.
"Before the mass protests began on the Friday of Anger, we were in a café with friends until five in the morning. When we returned and saw the news from Cairo, we understood why people were covering up pictures of Mubarak throughout Alexandria," Walsh said.
Hosni Mubarak had been Egypt's president since 1981. Rage exploded against him and his authoritarian regime after his 30 years in office.
Walsh and Edward woke up on Jan. 28 and discovered a curfew had been imposed. The state had scrambled cell phone signals and blocked Internet access they wrote.
"We were unable to arrange a safe way out of the country or speak with our families," Short said.
"That night, we decided that we needed to defend the building when we heard several gunshots nearby."
Short's host brother, Karim, the son of a military general, led a neighborhood watch to protect the local residents. Short and Walsh said he taught them how to make Molotov cocktails and poison knives with chemicals to protect themselves.
"The first night was the worst," they both agreed.
They said the governor's building down the street was burned and looted, but three nearby tanks helped protect their area.
The nights that followed "were more of a social gathering with the exception of a shooting incident involving a hijacked ambulance," Short said.
"Most of our time consisted of drinking tea, eating cookies, playing soccer and meeting other neighborhood watch groups."
When Short accompanied Karim to buy a gun for protection, the two were detained at a military checkpoint.
"They insisted on pointing a Kalashnikov at my chest for 'my protection,'" Short said.
On Feb. 2, with the help of USC study abroad Director Jennifer Engel and an extraction agency, Red24, the pair were taken to Alexandria airport.
"The U.S. State Department actually failed to arrange extraction for Americans from Alexandria on the day they said that they would," the men said.
After delayed flights and transfers, being swindled by a local driver, eating stolen food and escaping a gunpoint robbery, the pair made it out of Egypt – Walsh to Cyprus and Short to Austria.
They described themselves as refugees.
Instead of returning back the Unites States, the two joined a program in Rabat, Morocco – where they are now.
When protests began in Rabat in February, Walsh said he wondered at first whether he should be worried.
"I thought, 'Oh no, not again,'" he said. But after attending the protests in Morocco, Short was confident the same thing wouldn't happen again.
"The Moroccans were very organized. They were not angry. They just had a point to prove. They tried to prove it and then they went home. There was no danger of government upheaval," he said.
Short and Walsh are enjoying Morocco, but miss Egypt. They wish they could go back, but realize that they cannot – especially because they say USC will no longer accept credit from Egyptian institutions.
After their ordeal in Egypt, though, both students felt they owed their security to those who helped them along the way.
"We would like to thank Karim, Jennifer Engel, the USC study abroad staff and all the people who helped us get out of Egypt safely," they said. "We would be in a very different situation right now if not for their diligent work. Thank you to all our friends who kept us in their prayers and thoughts. We are truly so grateful."