What Really Happened Sunday Night in Cairo?

10/12/2011 10:17 am ET | Updated Dec 12, 2011

On Sunday night around 8 p.m., I logged into Twitter and the reports started streaming in, fragmented but urgent. Violence had erupted near the Maspero building between a march of Coptic Christians coming from Shubra and a mixture of soldiers, police, and civilians. Gunshots were heard. Deaths were confirmed. We were witnessing the worst violence since the revolution.

But from the beginning there was more to it. Peppered in among the Twitter messages from journalists and activists were accusations leveled at the State media, which had called upon "honest" or "honorable" Egyptians (depending on the translation) to come out into the streets and protect the military from the protesters. It was also reported on Nile TV, a state-owned station, that several soldiers had been killed. I grabbed some tea and started reading everything I could find.

And I found a lot. Many journalists were incredulous. Sarah Sheffer wrote that "Egyptian state TV claimed that Coptic Christians initiated the attack, angering many who believe that the inaccurate state TV discourse will insight [sic] further violence." Tom Gara tweeted that "Egyptian propaganda managed to turn a massacre of protesters into a two-way deadly 'clash' with deaths on both sides." Tony Karon suggested that "the sectarian issue itself is one easily manipulated to create a specter of chaos -- and make the argument for Egypt to be ruled by a strong hand," meaning that the military started the violence, and blamed it on the protesters. The journalists also pointed out that the names of the soldiers supposedly killed had not come out, because they did not really exist.

It's a confusing argument for those not totally up to date with the political situation here, but essentially these journalists were arguing that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which runs Egypt right now, provoked Christian-Muslim violence and used State media to fan the flames, in order to assert their necessity as peacekeepers.

The next day, I read that the major state-run newspapers and some independent Arabic language newspapers reported that the protesters really were the aggressors. Three major English papers reported simply that the clashes "erupted," but the true beliefs of their writers were clear. Abdel-Rahman Hussein wrote an article which barely hides its cynicism in the title, 'Honorable citizens' (quoting State TV) "refuse to blame military for Maspero violence." Egyptian reporter Omnia Al Desoukie posted this quote on Twitter, which gave me pause: "Give me media without a conscience and I shall give you people who are not aware or informed." She attributed the quote to "Hitler's Minister of Information."

Joseph Mayton, head editor of the local news website Bikya Masr, slammed international press that had reported the Coptic protesters started the violence. "The reality on the ground," he wrote "was starkly different than the image delivered to the world by so-called leading publications and networks."

I was overwhelmed. On Monday, Nile TV reported that indeed no soldiers had died. Or did they? Stratfor, a private intelligence company based in the U.S., reported to subscribers that in fact "a journalist not affiliated with Nile TV was in the studio and stated on-air that there was no evidence of Coptic involvement in the soldiers' deaths" and "there was no retraction; state media stood by its story."

So what happened on Sunday? Over the coming days, international media will clean up its coverage and separate fact from fiction while the viewers feel like they're getting the real story.

But what's clear is that the events opened up and laid bare the dilemmas of journalism that been here since the revolution. The incessant 24-hour news cycle, combined with the use of Twitter by journalists, now brings the experience of reading the news a lot closer to that of being a reporter. The reader surfing the Internet, much like the journalist in the field, finds conflicting information everywhere, making it necessary to sift, weigh, and decide who to trust. This is even more the case when the events are violent, the scene chaotic, and the control of information very clearly political.

The tragedy that compounded the heartbreaking loss of life was the position the independent media found itself in. When the international press started to the government line, local, independent press, which is predominantly against the ruling powers, was forced out of their role as speaker of truth to power, and became more like a lawyer for the protesters. State TV became the lawyer for SCAF, and as in a courtroom, two competing narratives for what really happened were pitted against one another, and the jury, the Muslim-majority Egyptian public, is still out.

By turning the country into a courtroom and the press into lawyers, Sunday night's violence aided in the process of tearing down the confidence of anyone to really know what is happening in the country and why it is happening. Now, reading the news, not just reporting it, is a full-time job. There is just so much information, and only so many hours in the day to sift through it. The only remedy is to pick a source, or a few sources, to trust them and to hope for the best.

A blogger and activist who goes by the name Sandmonkey wrote a personal account of the events, which reads a bit like a parable, and which has given me some comfort. He writes that during the violence one group started chanting "The people and the Army are one hand" and then another group responded, "Muslims and Christians are one hand." "Strangely," he describes, "both sides at the same time changed their chants to 'One hand,' and both sides started chanting that fiercely, stopped fighting each other, and joined each other... chanting 'One hand, One hand.'