A few days after the revolutionary high of the 2011 anti-regime protests in Cairo, demanding the resignation of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the mood had shifted.
Pro-government thugs were unleashed into the crowds. They started targeting demonstrators, journalists covering the events, and Westerners. Some of them had entered our hotel.
We were told to pack our things, cram into cars and drive from the Hilton, overlooking Tahrir Square, to a relatively safer hotel a few kilometers away.
I shared a car with cameraman Joe Duran, who sat in the passenger seat, and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper in the back seat.
On the 6th October Bridge, a mob forced our taxi to stop, and encircled us. They smashed the windows. They threw rocks into the car. The driver, surrounded by the violent attackers, appeared to freeze.
In Arabic, I remember saying: “I will give you $500 for the windows if you keep going.” I plucked that figure out of thin air. I still don’t know why that number in particular came to my mind. When he drove off, I thought we were safe.
We pulled into the entrance of the Marriott in our shattered car. Dazed, we made our way into the lobby and registered at the front desk.
Soon after, the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof told me some journalists were changing the names they checked in with, so that any thugs coming into the hotel demanding guest lists wouldn’t know which rooms the foreign press were in.
My name is Arabic anyway, I thought, so I should be fine. “Does it say CNN anywhere on your form?” I remember Kristof asking me. I wasn’t sure, but I decided to risk it. No point in lingering too long at the reception desk.
That night, we broadcast CNN’s special coverage from the floor of a hotel room. I remember thinking it looked like a hostage video. We would have many more nights like this, including a particularly tense evening barricaded in the CNN Cairo bureau, a sofa wedging the door shut.
I anchored hours of live coverage with our then bureau chief, the legendary Ben Wedeman, and Cooper. We sat huddled on camera equipment boxes, illuminated with as weak a light on our faces as possible, since the offices needed to look unoccupied from the outside.
Hopes for democracy
The government’s pushback against the uprising lasted several days.
The regime and its supporters tried to beat down the popular movement, but the army was not siding with Mubarak. As had been the case for decades in Egypt, it was ultimately the generals that held the reins of power. When they dropped Mubarak, we all knew he wouldn’t last long.
On February 11, 2011, 17 days after the start of the protests, it was over: Hosni Mubarak stepped down. This would mark the beginning of a new era; the hope was that decades of nepotism, corruption, police brutality and repression would give way to something resembling democracy.
A few years later, I covered the 2013 Egyptian presidential election, which led to the victory of a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed…
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