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Behind the scenes: In the hands of an angry, unpredictable crowd

By Nic Robertson, CNN Senior International Correspondent
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Divisions grow in Egypt
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nic Robertson has been covering the unrest in Egypt for CNN
  • Robertson and his crew have a scary encounter in the dark, unruly streets of Alexandria
  • Robertson: Streets at night belong to the strong, a sort of semi-self-regulating anarchy rules
  • Robertson and crew told journalists are to blame for portraying Egypt in a bad light

Editor's Note: Nic Robertson has been covering the unrest in Egypt for CNN. This is his account of a frightening encounter he and his crew had with a menacing crowd on the increasingly chaotic streets of Alexandria.

Alexandria, Egypt (CNN) -- The longest walk is when you don't know where it will end.

The longest minute is when you are worried about what's coming.

In Alexandria, both are in easy reach.

Two hundred yards, that's all that separated us from thousands of chanting demonstrators. They'd been marching all afternoon listening to calls of solidarity. Now it was night, rain was falling and stragglers were leaving toward us.

As we walked toward them, the dark, gaping, cavernous sidestreets were oozing menacing, stick-wielding men. Makeshift power lines sagged between the aging apartment blocks.

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Our plan was get to the crowd, tell the story and get out, our tiny camera hidden from view.

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First they were calling us, then grabbing, demanding passports. The men with the sticks were swarming us. Arguing amongst themselves. The men escorting us were telling us to be calm not to worry. Anger was rising.

Our passports were taken, inspected and handed back. That's when the confusion began. Who were we, why were there. Foreigners. Within the past few days, state media has raised paranoia to fever pitch.

Always wary of outsiders' intentions, the government is succeeding in dividing protesters. Not just for and against the government but over the very nature and portrayal of the uprising. They are trying every means to break unity.

We'd come with a group organizing the anti-Mubarak protest we wanted to cover. We were driven on the dark streets past checkpoints manned partly by soccer-playing boys, partly by soldiers and partly by what looked like the same stick-wielding, marauding men crowding around us now.

More of them were closing in now. The tiny gaggle around us was swelling and seething. Everyone passing by was drawn to the drama that was becoming our inquisition. Everyone wanted a say, everyone looking to get involved, take sides, take charge, make a decision.

We should have an official government paper, an angry man in the black leather jacket was shouting. It was becoming chaotic. Everyone had an opinion. Division and disorder were rampant, people pushing and shoving, our guides apologizing. No one person in charge.

The police are gone, the army guard their bases and government property. The streets at night belong to the strong, a sort of semi-self-regulating anarchy rules. Society is fragmenting.

As suddenly as he stopped us, the man in the leather jacket let us go. Hands placed on our backs, we were pushed onward toward the demonstrators. He had given in to the crowd, been pushed down, persuaded we had a right to cover the protest.

For a few moments, we were free. We kept walking. Then we heard his voice again, shouting behind us. This time he had others with him, leather-covered sticks embedded with brass nailheads in their hands. Now he was determined. Now the angry in the crowd outnumbered the apologetic.

Now the minute began and so did the walk. He told us we were being taken away to "another place."

The shouting was reaching fever pitch, people grappling with one another, we were being spun around. My cameraman, Todd Baxter, and I were being separated from our producer, Saad Abedine, and Alexandria fixer Mohammed. The hands were pushing us the other way now.

We were spies, the man in the leather jacket was shouting. Impossible to know where we were being taken. He kept marching us down the street, his henchmen at his heel.

We tried to slow and move to our car at the roadside. To my dismay and concern, our driver was gone. That was my hope blown, any chance of a run for it gone. And still no idea where we were being taken.

Our unintended escort was telling us we were to blame for portraying Egypt in a bad light. We were bringing the image of the country down. It's a fuzzy logic that defies the obvious. What's happening is willed by Egyptians on their own countrymen. He wasn't listening.

No punches were being laid, but the menace was clear.

The walk ended at the army base. The crowd circling, still pushing, shoving, shouting. The soldiers cut through the chaos and took us in. It was as night turning to day.

They were polite, organized, calm and courteous. They took a cursory glance at our passports and camera, let us wait behind their heavy gate until the crowd moved on.

It's chaos out there, and they know it.

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