Egyptian police used teargas and rubber bullets and beat protesters in a bid to clear thousands of demonstrators from a central Cairo square late last night after people had taken to the streets earlier today demanding the end of President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule in mass demonstrations inspired by the toppling of the government in Tunisia.
Cairo was the scene of violent clashes as thousands of protesters from separate demonstrations converged on Tahrir Square, the central plaza. Demonstrators waved Egyptian and Tunisian flags, hauled down a billboard for the ruling NDP party and chanted "depart Mubarak" at the 82-year-old leader, who will face elections later this year. One policeman died in the Cairo violence.
Two protesters were killed in Suez, east of Cairo, as other demonstrations took place around the country.
"This is the first day of the Egyptian revolution," said Karim Rizk, at one of the Cairo rallies. The protests against decades of poverty, oppression and police torture had been declared illegal by the authorities and were met with a fierce response. Teargas and water cannons were fired into the crowd and rocks were thrown into the air by demonstrators and security forces.
"We have taken back our streets today from the regime and they won't recover from the blow," said Rizk.
Protests also broke out in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, where posters of Mubarak and his son Gamal were destroyed. Roads were also blocked in the Sinai peninsula, and large rallies were reported across the Nile delta and the Suez canal region.
The protests were called by a coalition of online activists, who promised 25 January would be a "day of revolt". Apparently taken by surprise at the size of the crowds, police initially stood back and allowed demonstrators to occupy public squares and march through the streets, unprecedented in a country where political gatherings are outlawed and demonstrations normally shut down quickly.
But as the marches grew, the government moved to isolate them. Access to internet, phone and social media networks was shut down, spreading confusion among protesters and temporarily sealing the largest Arab country off from the rest of the world. Access was later restored, although services remained intermittent.
As night fell, thousands of demonstrators stood their ground for what they vowed would be an all-night sit-in in Tahrir Square metres away from parliament and other government buildings.
Security forces moved in arresting people, chasing others into side streets and filling the square with clouds of tear gas. Protesters collapsed on the ground with breathing problems amid volleys of teargas.
The sound of what appeared to be automatic weapons could be heard as riot police and plainclothes officers chased several hundred protesters who scrambled onto the main road along the Nile in central Cairo. Some 20 officers were seen brutally beating one protester with truncheons.
"It got broken up ugly with everything, shooting, water cannon and (police) running with the sticks," said Gigi Ibrahim, who was among the last protesters to leave the square. "It was a field of teargas. The square emptied out so fast."
Ibrahim said she was hit in her back with something that felt like a rock. "Some people were hit in their faces."
Some protesters turned violent amid the crackdown. They knocked down an empty white police booth and dragged it for several yards before setting it on fire, chanting that they want to oust the regime. A police pickup truck was overturned and set ablaze behind the famed Egyptian Museum.
Protesters also set fire to a metal barricade and blocked traffic on a major bridge over the Nile.
Police at the bridge fired teargas and protesters mounted a charge, forcing officers to retreat, though they quickly regrouped. Two protesters with bleeding head wounds were carried off in ambulances.
Today's events were a litmus test for the strength of a new generation of anti-government activists, who have rejected the moribund landscape of formal politics and begun organising online.
After parliamentary elections in November which handed the ruling NDP a 93% majority and were widely thought to be rigged, this "day of revolt" was seen as the best chance yet for youthful dissidents to prove they could command widespread support on the streets.
As reports came in of large rallies breaking out around the country, several different demonstrations in Cairo headed towards Tahrir Square, where a carnival atmosphere quickly took hold despite violent skirmishes with police breaking out on the fringes. Tahrir Square was last occupied during protests against the Iraq war in 2003, but witnesses declared today's rally to be even bigger.
Security forces intensified their teargas bombardment and begun charging protesters on Qasr el-Aini, one of the main roads leading to the square.
Protesters surged forwards again and again in the face of attacks, at one point causing hundreds of police to flee leaving riot shields, helmets and barricades in their wake, which were soon commandeered by demonstrators.
Government forces quickly regrouped and took back the street, forcing protesters back into the main square – now littered with rocks that had been thrown back into the crowds by policemen and pools of water fired in by police water cannons.
As percussion grenades exploded by the Nile, demonstrators chanted "terrorists" at the oncoming police, though also called on them to join their ranks.
"What is happening today is a major warning to the system," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst. He said the uprising would continue to gather momentum unless the government swiftly addressed demands for reform.
The death of 28-year-old Khaled Said in the port city of Alexandria in June last year has proved a potent rallying point for the opposition in Egypt and human rights activists elsewhere. Graphic pictures of his injuries after a fatal beating allegedly by police quickly appeared online. Witnesses claimed Said, who had earlier posted a video of local officers apparently dividing the spoils from a drugs bust, was assaulted at an internet cafe near his home. He was kicked, punched and had his head smashed against a marble staircase in the lobby of a building next door. His body was dragged into a police car and later dumped by the roadside. Security officials at first claimed Said died of asphyxiation after he swallowed a packet of narcotics hidden under his tongue. The United States and EU called for a transparent investigation. A trial of the two police officers charged with brutality is expected to resume next month.