The city of Cairo descended into violent chaos Friday night, as the riots of past days reached crisis point. Security forces set off tear gas canisters like machine gun bullets, and later, live rounds were heard being fired in the air, in an attempt to ward of the thousands of anti-government protesters that are pouring into the city center.

The curfew imposed by President Hosni Mubarak is having little effect in deterring the protesters. In a side street adjacent to Tehrir square, the focal point of the protesters, screams and cheers could be heard amid the explosions and sirens, as rioters upturned a police truck and set it alight. “Allah Akhbar,” ‘praise be to God’ is the chant that is heard. This is a full scale confrontation.

The riots that have gripped Egypt for the past three days escalated as night fell, when Mubarak imposed a military curfew. “If you go outside, you will be shot!” shouted a manager at the Shepherd hotel in central Cairo, opposite the River Nile. “No one can go outside after 6 P.M. This is the will of Hosni Mubarak.”

Minutes later outside the hotel, a car erupted into flames and explodes. The day seemingly started anti-climactically, as the mass riots that were predicted for Friday after prayer time seemed to have been thwarted by the shutting down of all communication networks. Protests erupted across the city, but without coordination between groups, it seemed as though the police held the upper hand.

"The difference with today is the police violence,” said one protestor. “They are not holding back”. Police surrounded the Giza square at prayer time, where the unofficial leader of the popular uprising ElBaradei was located. “My boy, my son, is inside,” said a woman, tears streaming down her face as she eyed the riot police that encircled the area, firing continuous rounds of tear gas canisters. “Egypt is no good.”

Thousands of protesters gradually gathered on the bridge that crosses the Nile and filled the wide road, entering an hours-long, violent standoff with security forces. Rows of riot police blocked the demonstrators' progress, while other officers fired water cannons and shot tear gas into the crowd from the adjacent road. Police trucks ploughed forward.

“I personally am not doing this for economic reasons, I want to live in a free country,” said a student watching the bridge from the side, just minutes before riot police charged, beating the boys and other onlookers with long wooden sticks. Plain clothes security men – burly men in leather jackets - nabbed a short boy and dragged him towards an empty building, as he screamed in protest. “They released the thugs – criminals had their prison records wiped to come and infiltrate the crowd,” said an onlooker.

“I had to sneak out from my house when my mother and sisters were sleeping as they didn’t want to come,” said 21 year old Ahmed. “I am doing this for my younger brother.”

This is a popular uprising – a genuine and desperate call for democracy, directed at Hosni Mubarak. “We don’t want him, or his Gamal his son, they are corrupt, they do nothing for this country,” said taxi driver Rahman.

Professor Abdallah Alashaal was an employee in the Egyptian government’s Foreign Ministry; now he is a well known figure of opposition. He predicts that the popular protests will spell the end of the regime. “The regime is trembling. Judging by the movements, Mubarak does not have the courage or honesty to admit that the regime is rejected. He may hold some days”.

“The demonstrations say that people are suffering, that he is repressing them,” said Alashaal. Even if the regime doesn’t immediately fall, the protests have weakened it, he believes. “It has taught Egyptians that it is possible to revolt. People have broken the wall of fear.”

Calling out the army is a last resort action for the regime. But it is also one that can bring about their downfall, Alashaal believes. “If he calls the army, they may never return to the barracks. The security forces may join the protesters; many officers have already abandoned their uniforms.”

It remains too early to tell if this prediction will be realized. The impression from the center of the riots, however, is that it has not been the blood bath it could be. Army vehicles have progressed through the streets without firing or attacking, though they easily could have.

The role of the army is critical, tonight's wild card that could determine the outcome of these protests. The police have more or less surrendered, handing over power to the army. Should the army sympathize with the people, it could spell the swift end of Mubarak’s 30 year reign