Bill Delbrugge Live From Egypt:
“This Is Just a Different Type of Hurricane”
FlaglerLive | February 2, 2011
Bill Delbrugge joined the barricades on the streets of Cairo after all.
As young men have taken positions in neighborhood-watch-like checkpoints around town to protect homes and property from looting in the absence of police, Delbrugge, who spoke admiringly of the protective squadrons, said he’s done his part in his neighborhood: “To me that shows great character with the Egyptian people, because my neighborhood was one of those neighborhoods where this happened, and I was very proud” that residents took it on themselves to provide security, Delbrugge said. There was nothing frightening about the checkpoints. “They were there to help us. I was thankful. I was carrying them water and coffee and in fact I stood with them for a while also. This is my home also, I wanted to do my part.”
Delbrugge, the former school superintendent in Flagler County, left in July to take over direction of the American International School in Egypt. The school is about 40 minutes from downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square, the focal point of democracy demonstrators in the capital city in the last nine days, and today, over the past few hours especially, the site of increasingly violent clashes between pro-democracy and pro-regime forces. Delbrugge was reached by phone just after 10 a.m. Flagler time today (5 p.m. Cairo time), as internet and other communication services were restored after almost nine days of blackout imposed by the embattled regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
- The Rise of Egyptian Aspirations, The Fall of the American Brand
- Watch BBC or Al-Jazeera-English Feeds of Egypt’s Turmoil
- Bill Delbrugge’s Letter to Flagler, Part I: America’s Place In the World–And Yours
- Delbrugge’s Letter to Flagler, Part II: How Egypt Compares And What Matters Most
- Bill Delbrugge in Egypt: Beyond the Camel, A Discovery of Challenges and Serenity
- Delbrugge To Resign and Head for Mideast
“We’re not in Cairo, I can tell you that,” Delbrugge said, “we’ve evacuated our teachers to a different location, and we’re in a very safe area. I’ve got all the staff together. At this point we’re just going to wait here for a little while longer and see if this gets any better.” He’s established a makeshift headquarter at a hotel outside of Cairo, near the international airport, making quick evacuation possible if anyone needs it. He compared his job now to his job as superintendent or principal during hurricane emergencies in Flagler, crediting the training he learned here to prepare him for the current situation in Egypt. “This is just a different type of hurricane,” he said, though in Flagler he had a larger administrative staff that could help. Delbrugge was not expecting today’s degradation, which he called surprising, and likely to delay the reopening of the school. Seven of his staffers with him are from Flagler County. One, Mary Beale, returned to the United States. Delbrugge’s son, Matt, is with him.
But while the economy is at a standstill, with banks closed, ATM machines out of money, shops running out of food and goods, and demonstrators calling for an extended general strike, he and his staff are not in immediate danger of running out of services: food and other necessities are being flown in daily, and Educational Services Overseas Limited (ESOL), the school’s parent company, which runs 10 schools in the Middle East, is providing for every employee need. This week two children and a staffer needed medical attention at the makeshift headquarters: a doctor was brought in for them.
The school in Cairo hasn’t been looted, as far as Delbrugge knew, nor have the homes of employees, which are in middle class neighborhoods of Cairo that have not been the scene of demonstrations like those at Tahrir Square. “That’s one little square in the center of downtown Cairo. Most of our students don’t live in this area, as a matter of fact I don’t know of any of our students who live in that area,” Delbrugge said. He added, “most of those areas, you wouldn’t even know these events were going on,” although the events are the dominant subject of conversation. People want to go back to work, students want to go back to school, but they also want matters to change and Mubarak gone.
“I believe people are very happy that there’s going to be change,” Delbrugge said. “People want democracy and they want an opportunity to have their voice heard, they want an opportunity to elect their national leaders and all these are positive moves, and they want an opportunity to have a police force that’s not necessarily corrupt and you have to pay people off to have government.”
Delbrugge at no point has felt in danger, at least until today, and he and his staff have “felt good” about the situation. “Egyptians take very, very good care of us,” he said. “I consider them my very close friend. If this was an opportunity for them to have a better life, definitely I would support that but I’m not used to people being violent like this. It’s unusual, and I’m disappointed that the government is not stepping in to end this. I don’t understand why. They don’t have a plan what do to.” Protesters today blamed the government for sending in plain-clothed police to disrupt demonstrations and trigger clashes to undermine the legitimacy of the protests while staging pro-Mubarak demonstrations. Mubarak said on Tuesday he would not step down until September. President Obama shortly afterward said an orderly transition “must begin now,” a message repeated by the United Nations General Secretary and the European Union today.
Delbrugge was multi-tasking a half dozen things from his headquarters when he was reached this morning. He was working to update his school’s website in order to give students direction on what to work on as long as school is closed; he was continuing to coordinate his operations’ logistics with support from his school’s Dubai-based headquarters; he was fielding calls every 15 minutes from various parts of Cairo, where staffers are reporting in the latest; he was toggling, as many Americans and others are, from CNN’s to the BBC’s live coverage of the clashes unfolding in the city. And calmly, in a voice as bright and confident as if he were talking about preparations for graduation or analyzing the latest from a leadership conference, he spoke for 40 minutes about events surrounding him in Egypt—and his decision to stay through it all.
“The reason we’re here is to help the students learn problem solving skills, to learn American work ethics, American values,” Delbrugge said, “and to help them with the education they need so when they take over the government and take over the businesses in the next generation, they can deal with the problems the country is facing right now. If we all give up on the kids, how can we truly say we believe in the mission we’re trying to accomplish? And yes, this is a difficult time, but I also have IB kids who are going to have exams in one month, I’m not going to let those IB kids down.” More than half the senior class at the school have applied to American colleges. If they don’t sit for their exams, that opportunity may be lost. “That’s just not acceptable for me. I would not be a very good leader if things got a little tough and I turned tail and ran. I’m not doing that. My kids deserve better, my community deserves better, and what we’re trying to accomplish deserves better.”
Delbrugge ridiculed fears of Islam or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “I have to say, I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here,” he said. “I was actually part of the problem before I got here because I didn’t necessarily understand the Muslims or Islam so I’d make a lot of stupid statements and make a lot of bad references because I didn’t under what I was talking about. The Muslim religion and Islam, they’re about peace, they’re about taking care of the poor, they’re about taking care of each other. They’re no different than any other religion.” He was asked specifically about the Muslim Brotherhood, the grass-roots organization—the only broad-based organization in Egypt, other than the government, with a network of social and political works, though it is not officially allowed to operate politically.
“The Muslim Brotherhood set up food banks in Egypt, they’ve set up tutoring in Egypt, they’ve set up care for the poor,” Delbrugge said. “Why should anyone be fearful of that? I think what the Muslim Brotherhood might have been at a different time, people might have been scared of. What they are now, I’m not fearful of them, and I’m right here with everybody. With any organization, and religion is an organization too in a lot of ways, in any organization there’s going to be people who make poor decisions, that’s human nature. But we shouldn’t hold it against a religion or an organization if one member does something bad. You don’t do that.” Educators have their bad apples too, Delbrugge said. That doesn’t indict the whole education profession. “What’s going on now has nothing to do with religion. People need to understand that. The Egyptian people want democracy.”
Simply wishing Mubarak away without a replacement structure in place would be dangerous for the country, however, as that would leave a country without leadership or services, Delbrugge said. He made a comparison to his own transition with current Superintendent Janet Valentine, which took place over several weeks (though in fairness to both, no one blamed either for being anti-democratic or cracking skulls). Delbruggee pointed to images on television today: a nation breaking down. But he also said that Mubarak’s decision to stay in power and refuse a transition was precipitating the violence. And while protesters have associated the United States with propping up Mubarak, “most people appreciate what the United States does,” Delbrugge said. “People know that the United States aid here is a lot of the reason why they have what they have. People know that. Most people here understand why the US needs stability in Egypt,” and they heard Obama’s speech calling for an immediate transition. “I do wish he would have done that sooner,” Delbrugge said of Obama. “As far as Americans are concerned, they shouldn’t see this as a negative, because what people are after is democracy and a better way of life and that should be something that we celebrate.”
Is there a situation that would prompt him to leave Egypt? “Obviously if I felt like it was a no-win situation, like it would make no difference with what we did, if things could not get better here, obviously I’d go someplace where people do want a better life. But that’s not the case here. Egyptian people are good people, they want a better life.”
Delbrugge’s suggestions to people back home in Flagler: “Appreciate what you have, because the reason this is going on is these people would like to have just an inkling of what we have in the United States.”