When Egypt's military announced last night it was taking over the government, the thousands gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square burst into estatic cheers. Fireworks exploded by the dozens, horns honked in the cadence of the chants ringing through the square, and there were so many frantically waving flags that, at times, you could barely see the masses of people below them.
And I was here to cover the story... well, sort of.
The reason I can paint such a clear picture of what the entire scene looked like was because while I was in Tahrir Square, I wasn't actually in Tahrir Square. I was 18 floors up, watching the crowds cheer the downfall of Egypt's first freely elected president from the safety and comfort a hotel balcony. Hotels that offer high vantage points of major news events do a brisk business at times like these. TV crews especially need a place to set up for their live shots, and journalists in general (me included) like to be able to describe what they are seeing at that moment when reporting on live events.
I lived in Egypt from 2005 to 2007, but I wasn't here for the 2011 revolution. As a journalist, it really galled that I missed such a big moment. Being here for yesterday’s military coup, I felt that I had a second chance.
Then I looked down.
It struck me that my vantage point gave me the same viewpoint as the camera mounted on the balcony next door that was pumping a live feed back to the States. Even though I was here, I couldn't interview the people celebrating, challenge them on whether or not a military coup was the best way to move the country forward, or ask them what their hopes were for the future. I could take photos of the fireworks above the crowd, but not of the faces of the people who had been protesting for days, hoping for this outcome.
You might think, why not just go downstairs? Here's why. More than a hundred women have been violently sexually assaulted in Cairo's Tahrir Square in these protests, and foreigners (check) and journalists (check) tend to be targeted by what many report are organized groups of men out to assault and rape.
I'm a freelance journalist, which means the various news organizations for which I work don't have any obligation to protect me or help me out if something goes wrong. Other female journalists covering these events try to bring a man with them or go in a group, but sometimes, not even that is enough, as other women have discovered in previous protests.
There are laudable attempts by groups like Tahrir Bodyguard (@TahrirBodyguard) and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment(@OpAntiSH), which through their very brave efforts were able to intervene and rescue many women over the past few days of demonstrations.
But for me, yesterday wasn't worth the risk. Because of my deadlines, I wasn't able to meet up with fellow journalists who were in the square to help “watch my back.” And I wasn't willing to pay someone to go with me, risking themselves for the purpose of protecting me. I was offered the opportunity to share a workspace with another journalist that offered a bird's eye view of events, where I could work with easy access to wifi, snacks, and safety.
Covering a breaking news event from that perspective can allow you to see the “big picture” of a protest -- the size of the crowd, movements within it, and the general panorama of the scene, but you do miss the human element. But, when you are working on your own, sometimes you have to make less than ideal reporting choices to ensure safety.
At least, I do.