- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2011

Three young Americans held in Egypt since Sunday, including 19-year-old Georgetown University student Derrik Sweeney, are set to be released, and family and friends hope they’re back in the U.S. within days.

Mr. Sweeney, Luke Gates, a 21-year-old Indiana University student, and Gregory Porter, a 19-year-old who attends Drexel University in Philadelphia, were arrested after, Egyptian authorities say, they threw firebombs during riots in Cairo.

The trio is spending a semester studying in the Egyptian capital, the epicenter of ongoing unrest that has claimed the lives of about 40 protesters in the past five days.

An Egyptian court ordered the students’ release Thursday.

“We are so blessed and so grateful right now,” Mr. Sweeney’s mother, Joy, said in an interview with CNN shortly after hearing the news early Thanksgiving morning. “I can’t wait to give him a big hug.”

While the students could stay in Egypt and finish out the semester, Mrs. Sweeney said attorneys and American officials have advised that they return home as soon as possible.

“Their pictures have been plastered all over the news over there,” she said, adding that the case’s publicity could put her son in jeopardy.

The broader turmoil continued in Egypt on Thursday, with reports and denials of Monday’s elections being canceled, the country’s interim military rulers refusing again to step aside, and protesters mobbing Tahrir Square repeating their demand that they do.

“What we want to hear is when they are leaving,” protester Khaled Mahmoud told the Associated Press in Cairo upon hearing that the military had apologized for the week’s civilian deaths.

After the announcement of the students’ release, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia thanked the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy and the American University in Cairo for their help.

“Our thoughts and prayers have been with the Sweeney family and the family and friends of the other two American students,” he said in a statement. “As we give thanks, we continue to keep them in our prayers.”

Mr. Gates, who is double majoring in political science and Near Eastern languages and cultures, is one of three Indiana University students spending a semester in Cairo. As violence escalates in Egypt, the university is encouraging all of them to leave.

“The university has been in close contact with its other students at the American University in Cairo … and has strongly urged the students to return home immediately,” the school said in a statement Thursday.

“The university has pledged to work with the students to ensure that their academic progress is not affected if they choose to leave before the end of the semester.”

The students have maintained their innocence, but Egyptian authorities have said the three stood on the roof of the university near Tahrir Square on Sunday and hurled Molotov cocktails at security forces.

During their conversation Wednesday morning, Mrs. Sweeney asked her son whether he had participated in the protests.

“I said, ‘Did you throw anything off a roof?’ And he said ‘No, I didn’t,’” she told reporters earlier this week. “And then I said, ‘Did you do anything else?’ He said, ‘No, none of us did.’”

Mrs. Sweeney also said her family has been assured that Egyptian officials will not appeal the judge’s decision.

Mr. Sweeney, Mr. Gates and Mr. Porter are expected to be taken first to a Cairo police station to fill out paperwork, then return to their dorm rooms and gather up personal belongings, though it is unclear how soon they will leave the country.

They remained in custody late Thursday.

The ongoing violence has, according to al-Jazeera television, also led Egyptian authorities to postpone elections set to begin Monday, the first free election in decades.

Many protesters doubt the Egyptian army’s ability to oversee a fair vote, but the junta quickly denied the delay reports.

“There will be no postponement in the election,” said Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, a member of the ruling military council said on Egyptian TV on Thursday.

“The election will be held on time with all of its three stages on schedule.”