Chaos of covering an ever-changing Egypt

Finding a balance between getting close to a story and staying far enough away for personal security is a challenge.

As violence escalates in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, reporting the news is a challenge  [AFP]

It is past nightfall in central Cairo, and the air is heavy with the smoky haze of tear gas that scours the senses and makes each gasp for air feel as though it may be the last.

The piercing wail of ambulance sirens is ever-present, and the angry chants of several thousand protesters demanding an end to military rule is near-deafening. The intermittent popping sounds of what could either be gunshots or exploding tear gas canisters form the chaotic symphony of sound in today’s Tahrir Square.

In the midst of this backdrop, I am searching for my next story idea when hundreds upon hundreds of panicked Egyptians turn and charge directly towards me. My instinct is to run, but my feet remain rooted to the ground as my brain tries to insert logic in an otherwise illogical situation.

The few seconds that it takes for my instinct to overpower my logic feels like an eternity, but I join the masses and run from the same unknown threat. In front of us are thousands of people, hands outstretched and faces panicked as they scream at us to stop. Inexplicably, we do. While it may have been a false alarm this time, often the encroaching danger posed by the security forces is real.

This scene will repeat itself dozens of times throughout the course of the evening, in a strange dance of two steps forward and a terrified near-stampede backward.

When calm prevails, I find myself standing among wounded protesters, just returned from the front line of clashes with Egyptian security forces.

‘Beyond my control’

I am trying to coax an interview from one of three medical workers who each have more pressing matters at hand, and do not seem inclined to speak to a journalist.

Eventually, one of them turns to me accusingly and asks, “Who do you work for?”

This question, while innocuous in many situations, is one whose answer I must consider carefully. This is a transitioning Egypt. Nine months after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak and just days before the country’s first post-revolutionary parliamentary polls, emotions are on edge. Deadly clashes take place in the same square where thousands of people helped bring about the end of a government.

In the aftermath of the uprising, Al Jazeera was both hailed and hated by opposing sides for its coverage of the mass protests. In this instance, surrounded by three overwhelmed volunteer doctors in an outdoor, makeshift medical centre, it is not immediately clear what answer will help me find what I am looking for – an interview subject. 

But I answer honestly, and the men break into wide smiles. “Al Jazeera saved us! We love Al Jazeera!” one of the doctors replies, explaining that he will do whatever he can to help me.

I have scored a minor victory, but now the challenge will be whether the story is ever heard.

Countless attempts to call my newsdesk result in the same automated phone message from my mobile provider: call failed. Internet connectivity is even less reliable. Whether this is due to the thousands of other users in the square jamming the phone lines, or to a more co-ordinated attempt at sabotaging communications – as some protesters allege – is unknown.

Eventually the story will get out. When is beyond my control.

Between the highs of reporting triumphs and the lows of sheer panic amidst an onslaught of rubber bullets and tear gas – simply reporting the news in an ever-changing Egypt has become news itself.

Source: Al Jazeera