“I was attacked today when I tried to protect some foreigners.” The Facebook message arrived in my inbox early afternoon Pacific time. It was evening in Cairo on Feb. 4, the pivotal “Day of Anger” that would ultimately lead to the downfall of the regime.
The young woman who sent the message was a graduate of the Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at The American University in Cairo, which I ran for four years until 2009.
At that moment, pitched battles were underway in Tahrir Square and the streets of downtown Cairo as pro-Mubarak thugs unleashed a wave of violence against the crowds of protestors—using Molotov cocktails, rocks, machetes, and even guns—which would claim almost 400 lives.
“A strange looking woman started yelling in the street when she saw two foreigners,” my former student told me. “She kept saying ‘These are Israelis. Kill them. These are foreigners. They are ripping off our country.’ Around 10 men grabbed them. I was with a judge and we started yelling at the people. I intentionally started shouting at the woman to distract the men. She ended up throwing stones at me!! I guess we are at war with the regime right now.”
I had covered scores of wars and revolutions in my thirty years as a reporter and heard many such first-hand accounts. The difference this time was that I was 7,000 miles away. For eighteen days, I had a digital front-row seat to the revolution, played out in real-time in an avalanche of e-mails, Tweets, Facebook postings, and Skype exchanges with Adham Center graduates and former instructors, as well as professional journalists and bloggers who had participated in the Center’s external training programs.
In the process, I witnessed the way in which Arab reporters are adapting the ideals of American-style journalism to the realities of the region’s tumultuous political landscape.
“It is a way of bearing witness to these historic events,” Abdallah Hassan explained of his work shooting footage of the demonstrations for Time.com. “I guess I am there as an observer—a participant in some sense, I guess. We all want freedom, justice, and democracy. Everyone deserves that.” Hassan, who has graduate journalism degrees from AUC and Columbia and had just completed a Reuters fellowship at Oxford, found himself facing a disconnect between the Western journalistic ideals he had learned in the classroom and the reality on the streets of his country. “Being a completely detached reporter doesn’t seem like the moral thing to do on a personal level.”
He was not alone. “I’m not reporting because I can’t be detached. I’m pro the democracy movement with all my heart,” said Sara El-Khalili, the woman who sent the Facebook note about being attacked. A graduate of the center, she was now teaching journalism at AUC.
I messaged Pakinam Amer, another Adham grad, and asked whether she was reporting or carrying a banner with the protestors. “In the square, albeit w/o a flag =),” she tweeted back. “Working as well. This revolution has moved me. Been supportive since Jan25. Can’t explain. All new to me.”
That sense of belonging to the revolution bore out the results of a survey I had conducted a few years before that found 75 percent of Arab journalists felt it was their mission to drive political and social change.
Like so many other Egyptian reporters, science journalist Nadia El-Awadi found herself overcome by emotion as the protestors stood up to the violent onslaught by the pro-Mubarak gangs. “I have cried my heart out today. So happy we stood our ground and didn’t let our martyrs down,” she declared in a tweet.
The older Adham alums who are the role models for these young journalists were likewise caught up in the emotion. Columnist Mona El-Tahawi was a ubiquitous presence on American television screens, voicing outrage at the regime.
Yosri Fouda, the host of an influential nightly current affairs program on a private Egyptian satellite channel and one of the first Adham alums, sent this tweet the day Mubarak was forced from office: “Wish I was in Tahrir Sq now but somebody has to present it to the world. Proud #Egypt #Jan25”.
Olfa Tantawi, a former reporter for Egyptian TV who is now finishing her PhD at AUC, was struck by the differences between what she saw on television and the events she witnessed in Tahrir Square.
“Everybody is there right now including my 70 years old aunt. Despite the attacks and the fear we all feel safe and happy,” she wrote in a Facebook note mid-way into the protests.