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Egypt: Shooting the messenger

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CairoBy Jane Dutton

Evacuated from central Cairo by the military, and driven to a 5-star hotel with my bags on top of an army tank, was the climax to an extraordinary and surreal fortnight.

It started back in Doha when I was stopped from getting onto two planes: visa issues that played out all the way to the immigration office in Egypt.

I was eventually given an entry stamp with a warning not to turn up again with a blank page in my passport.

I’m glad I made it. I was witness to a week that will change Egypt forever.

Friday’s Day of Rage erupts right outside Al Jazeera’s office window. From peace to mayhem in minutes.

The sky is white with tear gas as riot police fire metal canisters - supplied and made by the US - indiscriminately into the anti-government demonstration.

The air so pungent our eyes water in the office some six floors up, and we cough through the lives. I watch plain-clothes policemen on their mopeds driving into the crowds, lashing at people with their clubs.

We go out to film a piece to camera ... down into the throbbing, unpredictable crowd.

It resembles a scene from Vietnam: a helicopter hovers above, my feet crunch over debris and broken glass strewn across the streets, bloodied protestors stagger around in a daze, there are random outbursts of gunfire.

I’m shown bullets - I am told they are live rounds.

Everyone wants to tell their story and spread their message. "Mubarak must go!  We hate Mubarak!".

I can't sleep and neither does Egypt.

But by Saturday morning, an eerie calm on the streets, and shock as people digest what has happened.

The ruling party headquarters is still burning after being torched overnight. Something unimaginable a week ago.  This has been a police state, run under emergency law for 30 years.

We report seeing more than 100 corpses in morgues across three cities. And witness a body being carried past our office window.

Then something strange happens. The police vanish from the streets. And there is anarchy.

Armed gangs go from house to house, looting and vigilante attacks spread.

Police stations are set on fire and then … pictures emerge of a raid on the antiquities museum – ancient artifacts, hundreds of years old, destroyed.

A wealthy middle-aged woman tells me she is on nightly duty with her neighbours, armed with anything from their kitchens that resembles a weapon, to protect their properties.

Everyone believes the police and government thugs are behind the widespread looting.

The army replace the police - tanks and roadblocks all over downtown Cairo.

But despite this show of force, the relationship with the people remains a friendly one, the soldiers maintaining a respectful distance.

On Wednesday, pro-Mubarak supporters finally emerge.

They tell us many of them have been paid up to $80 to turn up. And suddenly I’m watching an ancient style battle unfold.

Men on camels and horseback charge into the crowd made up of young and old, women and children, beating them with whips. Egyptian turns on Egyptian.

The anti-government demonstrators grab whatever they can to protect themselves from the Molotov cocktails and rocks thrown at them.

I commented on the situation non-stop for 10 hours. I was riveted.

Dawn breaks and the battle is still under way with the anti-government camp reclaiming their positions.

They’ve sealed off Tahrir Square by putting metal sheeting around the area. And handed over pro-government supporters to the army - many of them carrying police IDs.

Everyday we play cat and mouse with the government: Al Jazeera Arabic is closed down, our offices raided and then trashed, six journalists arrested (24 in total), security warn us we'd be shot if we carried on filming from the hotel and finally our equipment taken.

We don’t name our correspondents and never stop reporting from the heart of the action.

Most of my broadcasts are from the square or our hotel balcony. Made even more challenging with no internet after the government pulled the plug.

As I write this, I hear that a journalist has been shot dead by sniper fire while reporting from his office window. I only left 12 hours ago.

Journalists are now clearly being targeted - two of ours are taken out of their taxi and beaten by pro-government thugs.

We had to evacuate our correspondent in Alexandria, while gangs were looking for her threatening to kill her.

People walk past our hotel holding 'Kill Al Jazeera' banners. And then word that our hotel is surrounded.

A rock thrown at one of the windows all but empties the Hilton.

Eventually we get a call that the military will be evacuating about 20 of us. We pile into two tanks and are driven to a hotel out of the battle zone.

The fighting is still going on, the president seemingly oblivious to the message to leave now.

But whatever the outcome of this rage, Egypt will never be the same.

Jane Dutton is a Senior News Presenter with extensive experience of international news, both in-studio and on location.


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