They’re going room to room, we have to get out.”
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.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Hala Gorani and Ben Wedeman anchored shows from Cairo during the Arab Spring in 2011.
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 2012 Egyptian presidential election, which led to the victory of a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi.
But, ultimately, a revived military would crush the Islamists in 2013 and bring the army back to power. They’d been there all along, tolerating what turned out to be only a brief experiment with democracy.
Lost — crushed even — in this tragic story are the original protesters, who dreamed of a democracy that would represent them.
In the first few weeks of the uprising, journalists like us shared in their optimism: Could this be really the moment the Arab world would, slowly and painfully, evolve into a system that serves its own people, rather than the unelected autocrats who had drained their countries dry for decades?
Elsewhere in the region, there were much more tragic outcomes.
In Syria, the regime crushed its own citizens’ cry for democracy with such brutality that peaceful protesters were quickly replaced by extremist rebels, fighting a government backed by outside forces for control of a shattered land.
Today, those of us who covered Egypt in 2011 still feel the intense emotion of those early days deeply.
There were some scary moments but the historic significance of the events we were documenting acted as rocket fuel as we ran from mobs and hunkered down in hotel rooms.
But for the revolutionaries in Egypt and beyond, it wasn’t meant to be.
The Arab world, in many ways worse off than before the Arab Spring, will have to wait for another generation to demand freedom from their leaders. And one can only hope that this time, they will be victorious, if only so that the sacrifices of those who came before them will not have been in vain.