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.

So right at that moment, I was a little bit nervous, because there was nothing you could do if you were sort of pinned between two people to avoid being hit with one of the canister. And the panic of people, running in every direction to avoid getting hit, was also a little bit worrying. I had a translator with me who is sixty-two years old, and she’s not in great health, and I was worried for her safety because she couldn’t really move that quickly. I was climbing up and over walls in the midst of people running in every direction, and at one point I had to carry her. There was another point where I felt a little bit in danger, and that’s when some young people in the demonstration started throwing rocks at the police, and the police picked up the rocks and threw them right back—we were kind of in the middle of the crossfire of that. But thankfully, at that point, they hadn’t started to use rubber bullets or anything like that.

In the press I’ve read, a couple different reasons for “unrest” are cited: unemployment, bad economy, government corruption, and a probably fraudulent election. When everything started, were you able to tell how united the protest was? Was it clear that everyone was protesting for the same reasons?

Well, you can tell a lot about, for instance, the class of the people in the protest by how they are dressed, whether they speak English or not, things like that. And this is only the protesters in Tahrir Square—that’s not to say anything about the protesters in Suez or other parts of the country. Within the square, it was still about 50 percent young people, well dressed, many university students or graduates, ranging from twenty to thirty years old. But there were plenty of other types of people there as well whom I spoke to. There were a lot of older men who had probably participated in many protests before and seemed to be more seasoned in dealing with tear gas, etcetera, and also a fair number of working-class people in more traditional dress (that’s kind of a class distinction in Egypt, whether they wear traditional dress or more Western clothes).

But the people I talked to all talked about Tunisia as an inspiring example. Nobody would say that the regime here is very popular, but I think a lot of people here hadn’t thought it was possible to actually do anything about it—until this Tunisian example came along, and suddenly there was a model for them to follow. And they’ve been, in some ways, following it very closely.

The inspiration for the Tunisian and Egyptian protests may have been the same, but do you think the outcome will be the same? It seems to me that the difference between the two situations has been the reaction by the military and police to the protesters. In Tunisia, the government forces refused to fight.

Well it’s still very early here. The Tunisian protest has gone on for a week. I was just discussing that with a political scientist today, asking him, you know, that’s the crucial question: when do the military or security forces or whoever get tired of beating people down, or, most crucially, whether or not they decide to use lethal force. I think it’s so early still. It’s premature to say whether the Egyptian military has come down on either side; the military has actually not been involved yet, it’s just been the state police. We haven’t seen actual soldiers yet on the streets of Cairo.*

But I don’t know, maybe that’s not in the cards. Maybe the government counts more on the loyalty of the police forces than it does on a general military that’s still fully conscripted, and is made up mostly of young Egyptians, many of whom are just as frustrated as the people on the street protesting. But anyway, it’s just too early to draw any conclusions about which way the momentum will go.

These things grow and shrink sort of organically, these movements of people on streets. It has something to do with planning, but it also has to do with particular circumstance: whether somehow two groups of 400 people can join together into a group of 800 people, suddenly becoming much more difficult to deal with on the street. And whether then that group of 800 people passes through the right neighborhood where people from another class might also join them, because they’re frustrated, too. Because of all these variables, it’s just so difficult to say which way this movement will go: whether it will gather momentum, or whether it will lose steam, assuming the regime sends the right messages or uses the right mixture of repressive tactics and compromise.

Do you think the Western press is doing a good job at explaining what’s going on?

Well, Egypt has a very sophisticated press, and I’ve gotten to know many of the political reporters here, and they really cover this stuff on such a higher level than the Western press. We sort of have these assumptions, we pop in this model and sort of repeat it in all these different countries: “There’s a street protest, and then either the government falls, or the government acts on its repressive impulses.” When you just follow that model, there might be some truth to it, but a lot of the nuance is lost.

You know, there’s all kinds of complicated deal-making going on in the different opposition parties, about what role they will play, and who will lead the different movements. I think the Egyptian papers do a much better job of capturing the balance of power. The Western press is all about what’s visible on the street and how that reflects what’s going to happen. But a regime that’s been in power for this long is not going to fall on the account of 30,000, or even 50,000, people in the street. The Egyptian government employs millions of people, and it has this huge army, so it’s not going to happen just because of that. It might inspire certain visions within the government, but those discussions are happening behind closed doors, and I don’t think those have really been talked about at all in the Western press. We haven’t heard a single report about the most senior uniformed officials within the military or within the state security forces. All we’ve heard about are maybe the chief interior minister, or the chief of intelligence. But what about the next rung down, the people who actually control the guys who shoot the guns?

I mean, foreign correspondence in Egypt has been better than most other places, because it is a major base abroad for newspapers and newswires. There are people here who know the situation. But then there has been a tremendous addition, of people who have just come in for the last week or so. I think it’s important to think about when you’re reading these accounts.

I complained last week about how so many of the first accounts in the U.S. press of the Tunisian revolution seemed to share a common theme: the use of social media in organizing protests.

Right, that’s an obvious story, because that’s something everyone can connect to. We can all relate to Twitter and Facebook. It’s harder for us to relate to, say, the particular relationship between civil servants and Islamist local government. That’s a more difficult story to tell than the story about how Twitter and Facebook helped make it all happen.

*[Update, Friday a.m.: Note that this conversation took place on Wednesday night; the situation has heated up since then, and as of Friday morning, Egyptian troops had indeed arrived on the scene, and the government had blocked Internet and cell phone service to its citizens. Latest updates at The NYT and The Guardian.]

[Update, Friday p.m.: See Stanton’s story for The National about the Friday, Jan. 28 protests here.]

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