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Egypt: A Bittersweet Revolution -- Behind the Scenes at the Biggest Protest in History

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Ramy Essam's face is haunted as he describes his arrest and torture. He leans forward on the couch and holds his head in his hands. A musician, his song "Erhal" (Get Out), which he sang in Tahrir Square in 2011, urging then president Hosni Mubarak to leave, fueled the first revolution and made him a star in Egypt. When the army stormed the square he was arrested, beaten and tortured. It was weeks before he could walk again. The wounds have healed but the pain still burns inside, he says. He lost three of his friends in the violence. "Ironically, we are now protesting against the very change we sacrificed so much for the first time around," he whispers and looks away.

Ramy recently uploaded a new video, "Yala Etna7a," to YouTube, where was viewed 200,000 times within a few hours. He is going to perform again in Tahrir Square, and stay there until President Morsi is removed.

At 25, with his wild black hair, handsome, stubble-covered face, and muscular body, Ramy is a born rock 'n' roll star, and the antithesis of the crazed, terrifying, America-hating images of Arab men that Western media have burned into our brains. We are interviewing him and several other young activists and civilians for the Egypt episode of Rebel Music, a documentary series about protest movements in turbulent countries. The crew is skeletal and consists of producer Andrew Rowe and myself, both from New York, along with a few others.

At the other end of town, in Heliopolis, Karim Adel Eissa, the wiry, opinionated rapper from the collective Arabian Knightz, is pissed off. We are visiting him at his parent's house where he lives. The outfit is part of the burgeoning hip-hop scene in Egypt and played a key role in motivating youth to revolt. They are now at the forefront of the movement to overthrow Morsi. In fact, their three-part song "Makshoufeen" (Exposed) can be viewed as a manifesto for the Egyptian revolution. Part one was recorded when the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists took over the Parliament and part two is a tirade against Morsi's alleged forging of votes. Karim is recording the finale, an urgent call to arms against the president in his bedroom. A copy of the Koran has pride of place on a shelf. "Shias and Christians are being slaughtered. This never happened in Egypt. It's crazy," he says, referring to four Giza district residents who were recently torched and killed, allegedly by Sunni Salafists, in a mass attack on Shias. "Egypt is spinning out of control because of the Muslim Brotherhood and we have to stop it."

rebel music

Our crew is ensconced at the Cairo Mariott in Zamalek, an island enclave of diplomats and rich Cairoites. Elsewhere, tensions are running high between the pro-Morsi Tagarod, and the Rebel Campaign collective known as Tamarod who say they have collected 22 million signatures to support the overthrow of the government. The Tagarod claim they have 26 million in support of the president.

Since arriving, we have seen thousands of cars lined up for petrol, creating snarling, combustible chaos in a city that lacked any traffic regulation to begin with. But traffic jams are the least of Egypt's problems. Fifty percent unemployment, corruption, and the crushing repression felt by young Egyptians under the Muslim Brotherhood have brought the most populous country in the Arab world to this second moment of reckoning. The millions of young people who astounded the world by bringing down the 30-year-old dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak have watched as the changing of the guard resulted in an even steeper decline for the country.

On June 25th, after considerable effort, we arrange a meeting with senior members of the Jama'a Islamiya, the most extreme of the Salafists, a hardcore Sunni Muslim group that is part of the coalition of The Muslim Brotherhood. We are trying to recruit Ali Fahmy Osama, a young campaigner in their party, to tell the Salafi side of the story. We climb a narrow staircase to a windowless office in Heliopolis. Ali, a cautious, nervous-looking man with a goatee tells us he has been warned not to speak to the media and is not convinced our story will be balanced.

The senior Salafists arrive after the evening prayer and things get tense. Sheikh Mohamed Taseer, the bearded and stern spokesman for the party listens intently to our fixer's translation of our pitch. The head of the Tagarod operation in Cairo, Sayed Abdel-Shafi, a dark and foreboding figure in a robe sits stone-faced behind the desk.

There will be no one representing the Islamist perspective in our documentary, we say to our hosts, adding that the Rebel Campaign is very vocal in its critique of The Brotherhood. The chief is Googling our project, scrolling through the information intently. Suddenly the tension is broken and he nods his approval to Ali's participation. We feel a rush of relief as our hosts order cans of Birelli (non-alcoholic beer) to celebrate.

The Cairo Jazz Club is a music venue in the fashionable Mohandaseen district.. We are here to tape Like Jelly, an acoustic quartet that sings songs poking fun at the Morsi regime, and Wust El Balad, a local band whose leader, Hany Adel, co-wrote "Sout Al Horeya" (The Sound of Freedom), one of the anthems of the first revolution. It's the Wednesday before the June 30 demonstrations and the place is completely packed. The music is loud, the booze is flowing, and laughter and weed waft through the air. In this happy chaos we meet Nariman El Bakry, a marketing executive at the club.

A vivacious 24-year-old with an eyebrow piercing, Nariman and her friends are educated, middle- and upper-class Cairoites with large social media networks. During the first revolution, she posed as a medical student in a hospital to help protesters shot by snipers. According to Nariman, the election was rigged and after Morsi came to power "the streets turned into a fucking zoo, our economy plummeted, tourism came to a halt, we had electricity cuts and fuel shortage, and sexual harassment because liberalism is blasphemous to the Brotherhood." After a hard day's work at the club she puts on her hard hat and meets up with friends on the edge of Tahrir Square to protest all night. This Sunday, Nariman will march to the presidential palace.

The next day we visit a rebel campaign office several floors up a building near Tahrir Square. Inside, we find ceiling-high stacks of signatures from the millions of Egyptians opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, empty coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. Young men with stubble and young women, some in headscarves, are shouting instructions into cell phones, updating Facebook pages and scanning tweets. A girl in hijab urges us to tell America that young conservative women are also against Morsi.

When June 30 arrives the streets of Zamalek are desolate. Everyone is at the protests. Shops are closed in anticipation of riots. Hundreds of noisy processions flow like tributaries into rivers of people on the main avenues leading to Nasr City and Tahrir Square. By night, an estimated 33 million people are in the streets in Egypt. This is the largest protest gathering ever assembled in the history of mankind, according to some sources.

Morsi's supporters were armed with clubs and guns, some in riot gear, but the Tamarods were in a celebratory mood, sensing victory. The anticipated pitched battles between the two did not happen but dozens of people attacked the presidential palace with stones and firebombs. Army helicopters flew in formation above the crowds, trailing national flags in a show of might. Tanks roamed the main avenues and hundreds of snipers perched on strategic locations throughout Cairo and elsewhere. A few deaths and several injuries were reported but the most disturbing stories came from the darker recesses of Tahrir Square where dozens of women were raped and molested in this most tragic aspect of the revolution.

Ramy Essam could not believe that the army, his tormentor from the first revolution, was being cheered as a savior. He got into arguments with some of the protestors in Tahrir Square and walked away in disgust. Since then, demonstrations have continued, as have bloody crackdowns by the military on pro-Morsi demonstrators and, in fact, any dissenters. And of course ex President Mubarak has been released from prison while President Morsi is being tried for inciting the killings of protestors. September was a month marked by militant Islamist attacks, increasingly repressive tactics from the military, and a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. The outline of the new Egypt the people fought for gets harder to discern amid the turmoil. Only one thing is clear, however: the youth of Egypt are not about to have their revolution wrested away from them by anyone.

Nusrat Durrani is the Executive Producer of Rebel Music, a documentary series about protest movements around the world that will debut November 18th on mtvU . He is also SVP/General Manager of MTV World, a division of Viacom Media Networks.