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CNN producer covers a revolution in his homeland

By Amir Ahmed, CNN
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11 after 18 days of relentless demonstrations.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11 after 18 days of relentless demonstrations.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amir Ahmed was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt
  • Ahmed never thought he would see a day when Egypt's president was toppled
  • He vowed to remain neutral, which was hard at times
  • He was struck by his journalist father's words

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- As a boy, I had watched the assassination of Anwar Sadat live on television. That's how, I thought, power changes hands in Egypt. A president stays in office until he dies.

On February 11, long-held perceptions about my homeland changed. The world watched as a popular uprising toppled President Hosni Mubarak, who, as Anwar Sadat's vice president, came to power after Sadat's assassination and ruled Egypt with an iron hand for three long decades.

When the protests began gathering steam, CNN sent me to Cairo as part of the coverage team. All my colleagues were amazed by what was unfolding on the streets.

But none, perhaps, like me.

I could not believe that this was the city of my youth, the place where we all knew that trouble would follow if you raised your voice too high against Mubarak's regime.

For years, I had observed my nation from afar, visiting my family only three times since I left in 1990 for the United States. On this, my fourth trip, I hardly imagined that I would be on my way back to CNN headquarters in Atlanta so soon. Who would have predicted a revolution in 18 short days?

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I had sensed something big was going to happen. But no one could have guessed how big that something would be.

I walked to Tahrir Square every day with a CNN correspondent and cameraman, my heart beating faster than I can ever remember. It was exciting to be among the throngs of people. I could see in their faces the desire for change and an unflinching determination to move forward -- even on that day when Mubarak's supporters showed in force, and I worried there would be enormous bloodshed.

From my hotel room, I saw a group of pro-government demonstrators approaching the anti-Mubarak demonstrators. I picked up a small camera and rushed to the square, where they came face-to-face with the anti-government crowds.

People hurled verbal insults and rocks at each other. They even scraped up chunks of sidewalk to use as ammunition. Egyptian against Egyptian.

I sought shelter under a glass storefront -- fearful that at any moment a rock could come crashing through.

My heart sank to see that my compatriots could not rise above their differences. That we were hurting one another in such a way. I don't know that I ever felt such sadness as an Egyptian citizen.

It was difficult to retain my composure. Still, I let my camera roll, capturing the most dramatic video for CNN that day.

The next day was no better. Government supporters formed street gangs and started attacking journalists and breaking their equipment. They tried to storm into our hotel.

An engineer and I tried to sneak out, but we were caught by a gang of 10 middle-aged men. They forced our driver to stop the car. They were about to beat him with clubs and wooden sticks. They yanked me out of the car, I assumed, to beat me, too.

Just at that moment soldiers arrived on the scene and tore the gang away from us. They searched us and then escorted us back to our hotel.

I wanted the entire world to understand the depth of what was happening in my homeland.
--Amir Ahmed
RELATED TOPICS
  • Egypt
  • Hosni Mubarak

I was shaken. But not for long.

In subsequent days, the protesters' courage served as inspiration. The crowds were not dissipating as some had expected.

They were swelling.

They were louder, more defiant, relentless in their struggle.

At times, it was hard not to be swept up in the moment. The emotions were overwhelming.

I tried to remain the neutral journalist, to make sure my reporting was fair and balanced. I gave voice to the people -- it was their revolution, after all. I made sure to include government statements in my reportage, to let what they said contrast with the people's demands.

I reminded myself to tell the story not from my perspective but to make it digestible to someone watching in Paris, Texas -- or in Paris, France. I wanted the entire world to understand the depth of what was happening in my homeland.

Then, last Friday, I heard the crowds roar in Tahrir Square. I looked up at the giant television screen and saw Vice President Omar Suleiman appear. He spoke only for a few seconds. He did not need to say any more. President Mubarak, he said, was stepping down.

Finally.

I put my profession aside and embraced my nationality -- after all, I was an Egyptian before I was a journalist. I could no longer hide my feelings. No longer pick up a pen and camera. No longer document the revolution. Now I was a part of a new Egypt.

I saw an elderly man hug teenagers. "Congratulations," he said. "You did it." And I wiped tears from my eyes.

I hugged my CNN colleagues, not really knowing why. I just did. I called my wife back in Atlanta to share my excitement. And in Cairo, I called my 76-year-old father, who had given up his journalism job 15 years ago because he'd had enough of being forced to write things that he didn't believe to be true.

In the next few days, I watched young kids clean army tanks that bore graffiti reading "Down with Mubarak."

Upper-middle-class men mopped piled-up garbage near Tahrir Square. Women painted sidewalks. Businessmen donated money to rebuild police stations burned by the crowds.

I have yet to fully digest the whirlwind of events that has sprouted new hope in my country. It's hard to succinctly say what it all means. But it's my father's words that, perhaps, sum it up best for me, his son the journalist. I will think of them on my journey back across the ocean.

"How do you feel?" I asked him after Mubarak's fall.

He told me simply this: He was ready to go back to work.

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