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The Egypt I never knew existed

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By Jamal Elshayyal

I arrived in Cairo on Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after tens of thousands of protesters had brought the Egyptian Capital to a standstill. I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived, but I can safely say what I saw was far beyond my imagination. The scenes I witnessed, violent, brave, barbaric, and above all revolutionary in nature, surpassed anything I had ever seen from the Egyptian people.

The Taxi taking me from the airport was forced to stop about half a kilometre from our offices in down town Cairo. The road had been blocked by protesters, rubber tyres had been set alight, and chants of "down down Hosni Mubarak" echoed like the call to prayer.

Within a minute of stepping out of the Taxi, I was choking from the tear gas being fired by riot police towards the demonstrators. But those on the street, mainly youth in their 20's, were defiant. They stood their ground for half an hour, their anti-government chants got louder and their numbers began to increase. But so did the number of riot police, and armoured vehicles; within minutes the protesters were outnumbered and their chants replaced by screams as police wielded blow after blow at the unarmed crowd.

Those gathered quickly dispersed, and that glimmer of resistance, the first of its kind that I had seen in my years of travelling and working across Egypt, fizzled away.

Or at least thats what I thought.

So I continued to make my way on foot to the office. But I didn't have to walk long before I heard the bellowing sound of another group of protesters, around 50 people had gathered outside the Journalists' Union, but here too police, armed to the teeth, had outnumbered them - roughly 5 to 1. And just around the corner from them, around 500 Egyptians were being surrounded by at least one thousand riot police as they staged a protest in front of the Lawyers' Union.

As I tried to take pictures, I was harassed by police, who eventually chased me down the street. In all effect, this was a battle for the streets of Cairo between the people, and the baton wielding, tear -gas-spraying, rubber-coated-steel-bullet-firing strong arm of the government. What many would describe as a game of cat and mouse.

The only difference though, was some of the mice, soon proved they had hearts of lions. Outside the Ministry of Foreign affairs they gathered, "the people - demand - collapse of the regime" the chanted, louder and louder. Sirens began to scream, then "bang, bang bang" my eyes began to burn, I threw up, choking from the sheer density of the tear gas. As if that wasn't enough, non-uniformed police started dragging people away, two protesters fell to the ground after being tased with stun guns. It was difficult to fathom the amount of force being used by the police on their own countrymen. Two people were killed later in the evening in that same area.

I'm still trying to absorb what I've seen, I'm not quiet sure what to make of it. To some extent I've already been proven wrong with regards to my expectations of the Egyptian people and their ability to protest en mass. The next 48 hours will prove decisive in shaping the future of the Arab world's most populous nation, and the region as a whole.

Jamal Elshayyal is a news producer with a focus on Arab politics and Western/Arab relations.

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