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Notes From a Front Seat at Egypt’s Revolution

FOX News foreign correspondent Dominic Di-Natale was in the thick of covering the developing crisis in Egypt for more than a week. He was one of FOX’s first correspondents dispatched to Egypt where he covered protests, clashes between groups supporting and opposing the Mubarak government, and breaking news as tensions continued to rise.

News Watch interviewed him about his personal and professional experience in the front row of history, witnessing the great crowds gathered on Cairo’s Tahiri Square and the raw emotions of people on the streets.

“It’s definitely one of those stories you remember for life,” Dominic Di-Natale said in a phone interview. “Being at the epicenter of where it was all happening was the closest I’ve been to one of the biggest stories in the Middle East.”

Here is an edited version of the interview:

It was a Berlin Wall moment, would you say?

Someone compared it to Tiananmen Square. That’s a much more accurate description, because I’m not sure how much of a floodgate has been opened toward democracy in the Middle East.

I watched the video [above] of you at the square the moment the crowd heard that Mubarak had stepped down. What did it feel like?

It had been a really difficult 24 hours for all of us covering the story, empathizing with the emotions that went from the very peak to the very depth when, 24 hours previously, there was massive expectation that Mubarak was about to step down.

Then there was that clearly prerecorded message when we had been told that he was going to resign live on air. You could feel people’s hearts plummet.

You could hear an almost audible crash of disappointment and disillusionment. There was immense anger. You could almost hear people’s blood boil.

There was booing, jeering, and deep visceral cries of rage coming out of some of the people in the square. It was extraordinarily overwhelming. I was standing out on a balcony and I put my hand out into this wall of sound, an overwhelming wall of deep dissatisfaction coming off the crowd. It was palpable.

Then came the next night, and this time it was clear that he was definitively going. It was clear throughout the day that something was happening, so I think we believed it this time.

Simmering Sea of Emotion

Looking at the crowd, it was like a simmering sea of emotion. And this time it seemed much more positive. If you could have measured it in some kind of digital audio wave form, it would have gone from the red wave of anger and deep resentment to a green spike of positivity and optimism. It sounds rather strange, but I live in a digital broadcast world, and that’s an analogy I can come up with.

The aural resonance coming off 250,000 people massed and crammed so tightly on that second night into that square was a physical sensation.

You couldn’t help being washed over repeatedly by the different waves of emotion. You definitely got caught up with it emotionally.

Journalists are supposed to be impartial, but when you are in an extraordinary groundswell of human emotions you cannot be unaffected by that.

When they knew most definitely that Mubarak had stepped down it invaded every single sense, rising through your body into your brain.

It’s too early to say if this was the equivalent of D-Day in Europe. But perhaps in retrospect it will have been one of the great moments of history like the fall of the Berlin Wall, or perhaps it was the Tiananmen Square of the Middle East. Time will tell.

Three generations ago in my family, a great-great-grandparent departed from the city of Alexandria in the Nile Delta and headed for Italy in search of better economic opportunities. The people gathering in Tahiri Square were protesting precisely over that. They wanted reform in the economy, better chances, choices.

Genetic Empathy

I couldn’t help but feel genetic empathy with them. I had watched their blood boil in that square, blood I probably shared with some of those people. It was a personal moment for me.

You do feel connected in those extraordinary, unique moments. It will leave a lasting impression with me forever. I’m going to want to chase my geneology after this.

How were you treated as a member of the media before that moment in the square, in the days during the run-up? And how did that compare with how the media was regarded by Egyptians since then? We got the impression that the media were treated with some hostility throughout it all.

My colleagues who went down to report on the pro-government demonstration crossed a divide. In the confusion they found themselves in a building under attack, and it wasn’t always clear who was fighting who. A Molotov cocktail hit the side of the building they were in, so they decided to make a run for it. They ran into a sea of pro-government demonstrators, and their experience was televised.

Journalists were jostled and even punched. You never knew when you went out who you were going to encounter and how you would be greeted. We did encounter situations where there was anger directed at us because we were westerners. People would come up and shout in our faces, and there was wild rolling of the whites of their eyes as they raged at us. Other protestors held them back, otherwise they might have beaten us.

Yet, we were able to bypass people like this, slink through the crowd and, not ten feet later, there would be Egyptians embracing us, encouraging us to show the world what was happening.

Yard by yard, you wouldn’t know whether you were going to be punched or celebrated. It was that extreme.

Even after Mubarak stepped down, on the Saturday, my last day in Egypt, there were still people very hostile to us. It could go any way with any individual you met.

So the people were still divided?

Absolutely. I think the people were still in a state of shock. Even though they had protested and demanded change, they were scared about their livelihoods, because they didn’t know who was going to be in charge or what changes were going to come. As much as they were resentful, they couldn’t choose their livelihoods because there were no economic opportunities. Those who did have government jobs are now facing who knows what, especially if they were very close supporters of the regime.

There are a lot of people feeling very nervous about their future, and that has the potential to lead to future unrest. People’s emotions flipped from one side to the other.

Even now, my colleagues left behind in Egypt are not going to have an easy time covering the story. They are going to have to face people still in a confrontational mood.

The western media was seen as a destabilizing element within Egypt during the entire crisis. The government was certainly portaying it as that. We briefly saw instructions running across the ticker on the state-owned television calling on Egyptians to attack the western media.

Did you get out to the archaeological sites, such as the pyramids? What did you find there?

We went out to them. They were closed for a while, a few days. You could get only as far as the razor-wire fence. We could get on to the roofs of some of the houses in Giza.

What was weird was that as we drove in, we encountered people banging on the vehicle windows, trying to break them. We drove thirty yards or so into a back street, where it was completely calm. No one chased us in there or came after us. We think the demonstration against us on the main road was orchestrated somehow.

Things at the pyramids seemed to be fairly intact. The biggest damage appeared to have been at the Egyptian Museum, which is on Tahiri Square. But I would argue that the anti-government protestors were prepared to fight to defend the museum. There is such a sense of national pride in Egypt. They know their heritage is so unique in the world that it has to be protected above the people.

The way the citizens created the security cordons on the square, not the armed forces, just showed the way they conducted themselves. There is no doubt that they would have protected the museum.

It was extraordinary on the Saturday after Mubarak left. We found people painting the paving stones on the square. They wanted to show a clean square and country, a clean start and a sense of pride for their country.

Dominic Di-Natale is known for covering international news stories — he has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Lebanon, and held posts in Brussels, Frankfurt and Dubai. He has trained journalists in South Africa and covered the war on Iraq during 2006 for various outlets.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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