Chris Stanton, a New Jersey native who has worked for several years for The National, an English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi, has been reporting since November from Cairo. He had just returned from a vacation in the U.S. on Tuesday morning when the “January 25” protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian government broke out in the city. You can read his first dispatches on this still-developing story for The National here, here, and here.

CJR assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Stanton on Wednesday night about what he’s seen in the past few days, the challenges of reporting there, and what the Western press is still getting wrong. This is an edited version of that conversation.

When did you realize this was a big story?

At first, there was no assumption that this was going to be anything extraordinary, because all sorts of protests happen frequently in Egypt, whether it’s at the courts, or at the Parliament building, and usually they turn out to be a few dozen people, or maybe two hundred people. So the assumption at the time was that it was going to be something like that—maybe a few paragraphs in a larger story about Egypt’s political future in the wake of Tunisia. Obviously, once everything got under way, it turned out to be a much bigger story than that.

What was your approach to reporting this story? How do you report on a riot?

I think it’s really interesting—when you look at all the coverage that came out on the first day, you’ll notice a lot of common traits. One is that none of the stories have any official accounts; they may quote certain official sources, but those sources may have, in retrospect, proved to be incorrect. What you find is, you’re in a situation—
very, very briefly—where the reporter’s account of what’s going on is, itself, the authoritative account. Everybody else is seeing the same thing, so if you ask analysts or experts, they’re just telling you what you already saw in front of you. So my strategy was to try my best to interview a cross-section of people in the protest—older people, younger people, men, women—and also to try to speak with some of the police officers, although of course they weren’t allowed to speak to reporters. And although it wasn’t exactly a “battle,” there were obviously two sides. You see the one side, getting tear-gassed, using wet cloth to clear their eyes, and getting medical attention. Then I tried to walk over to the other side, and as a Western journalist I was able to sort of walk through a lot of the lines to see the police, who were themselves taking care of their wounded and sort of panicking and looking exhausted—all the range of experiences on that side. So I got to see both sides of it as everything was unfolding.

I read an amazing account by Jack Shenker, a reporter for The Guardian, who got arrested in Cairo on Tuesday, beaten by security forces, and thrown in the back of a truck. Did you feel that you were in danger when you were out reporting?

It was sort of a random thing, whether you were in any kind of danger or not. It depended on where you were in the crowd. I came out with my translator and another reporter, and we knew that the protest was going to come to the center square, which was where all the action eventually happened. So we waited there, and there was no one there, initially—there were just lines of police all around in a big, empty square. And to give you an idea, this square is just massive—maybe three or four times as large as [New York’s] Union Square. And so as we stood there, suddenly this crowd came down one street, really quickly, and sort of enveloped the area where we were standing, so suddenly we were in the middle of it. Then as other crowds started to join, that’s when the police started lobbing about twenty or so tear gas canisters right into the middle of the crowd.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner