CAIRO (AP) — A little after 8 a.m., the stones began to fly.
Goaded by a crowd that clearly despised the ousted Egyptian leader, supporters of Hosni Mubarak fired off a volley of stones. It turned into a melee of bottles and rocks between the two sides outside the fortress-like police academy on Cairo's outskirts where the trial of the man who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years was about to begin.
Many of the Mubarak supporters were left bandaged with gashes on their heads. But the injuries did nothing to deflate their outrage. They seemed overwhelmed with fury at a nation that had turned against its leader, villified him and now was humiliating him.
"He's going to be found innocent," screamed one woman, Tahami Luteifi. "There's no option but that! He is the father of this country."
For most Egyptians, the only president they have known is the 83-year-old Mubarak, who often fashioned himself as the nation's father, its provider and its protector.
Omnipresent larger-than-life photos of Mubarak wearing trademark aviator sunglasses and a military uniform once decorated Egypt's streets and government offices. Photos of him appearing to give orders to world leaders emblazoned the front pages of government newspapers and any articles discussing the state of his health could land journalists in prison.
Mubarak, who had not been seen since his last speech on Feb. 10, reappeared Wednesday before the public in the first session of his trial, aired live on state TV. This time he was caged behind metal bars on a hospital bed, charged with corruption and complicity in the killing of nearly 900 protesters during the uprising that ended his rule of the Arab world's most populous nation.
In Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, the downtown hub that serves as the epicenter of protests and was the scene of the worst fighting during the uprising, the first courtroom images of the former president on televisions in shops had spectators erupting in applause. It was a scene many felt they would never see.
One man walked up to a newspaper stand and snatched up a paper with Mubarak's photo on the front page. He spat on it repeatedly, put it back and walked away.
Nabil Hassan, who owns the stand, didn't seem upset.
"When (Mubarak) is in the cage, and we know he's there, then we know we have started to put our feet on the path to justice," said the 65-year-old vendor. "If he and his accomplices are in court, he becomes one of the people — no different from anyone else facing justice."
Outside the police academy — once called the Mubarak Police Academy until the post-revolution purge of building names — around 50 Mubarak supporters and several hundred opponents gathered, watching the scenes in the courtroom on a giant TV screen hung at the entrance. Under the TV was a poster of Mubarak's face behind a noose, with the slogan "The People's Judgment," scrawled below.
It was a combustible mix, and hundreds of riot police struggled to keep the two sides apart. The searing summer sun didn't help tempers, with hardly any shade for the crowds fasting from food and drink for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The loyalists burned with the rage of an indignant, dwindling, die-hard minority. In the broader Egyptian public, even those who don't like the instability that Egypt's revolution has brought have little good to say about Mubarak.
"We will demolish and burn the prison if they convict Mubarak," they screamed. Many wore white T-shirts bearing the message: "I'm Egyptian. I reject the insulting of the leader of the nation."
A hysterical young woman wept at the thought that Mubarak faced the possibility of going to the gallows. Supporters' anger turned to Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister for 10 years and the head of the military council that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak fell.
"What does Tantawi think he's doing. Is he trying to be a hero?" yelled Luteifi. "Did he forget he got to be a minister thanks to Mubarak?"
"Tantawi," she said, "don't forget that your day will come."
The Mubarak opponents — emboldened and perhaps incredulous that they actually saw the day when Mubarak was locked in the kind of cage reserved for common criminals — periodically threw taunts at the loyalists.
"What are you sitting there for. Just go home," they chanted.
Occasionally, the taunts would spark a new round of scuffles and stone throwing. But the loyalists needed no reason for a fight.
Two women set upon an AP correspondent, slapping and punching him before police intervened.
"You're a foreign spy," one screamed, hopping on one leg as she tried to take off her shoe to continue the assault. "Go back to your country and tell them he's innocent."
Behind her, dozens of other pro-Mubarak protesters pounded on the gates of the academy.
"Let us in, let us in!" they yelled, stopping only when fed-up police threw open the metal gates and stormed the crowd with batons.
Families of some of the victims killed in the uprising, as well as others who backed the revolution, stood by bemused.
"They're delusional," said Mohammed Mustafa el-Aqqad, whose son, Mustafa, was killed during the anti-regime protests. "How do they think he's coming back?"
"The biggest achievement of this revolution is that all these crooks and scum are in a cage," he said. "We're here to tell Hosni, 'Happy Ramadan, congratulations on your new cage.'"