I awoke on Friday, Jan. 28, in my apartment in Dokki, Cairo—five minutes from Tahrir Square—to the sight of a single word on my cell phone screen: "emergency."
As the day wore on, the severity of the situation became clearer while the air became clogged with the pungent scent of tear gas. News reports, one of the few sources of information, took on a tone of alarm. Cell phone service and the Internet were cut sometime in the early morning; Facebook was blocked the night before and Twitter had been shut down for some time. After the demonstrations, held the Tuesday before—which became known as "the Day of Anger"—warnings from the government appeared on the front page of the state newspaper threatening further violence against demonstrators.
As I moved down Tahrir Street toward the epicenter of the protests in Cairo, a man handed me a tissue, thousands of which were strewn across the streets among broken glass and empty water bottles. People used the tissues to cover their mouths and noses and to wipe tears from their eyes. No one could say how many people took to the streets, despite warnings from the Egyptian government that public demonstrations against Mubarak's 30-year reign would not be tolerated—a point that cannot be overstated given the infamy of Mubarak's security forces. One man told me there were half a million demonstrators; reports from earlier in the day put estimates at 60,000.
It was more than the police could handle, or even had the will to oppose. The first sign of this turn of events came from Alexandria, where stories emerged that police and demonstrators had stopped fighting and briefly exchanged sympathies before police were overwhelmed and forced to retreat. Later, as I crossed the Nile River, a man standing on top of a police truck was the first visible sign that this shift had come to Cairo.
Black smoke from tires and trucks, and later the ruling party's headquarters, mixed with tear gas and billowed up from the eastern bank of the Nile. Tahrir Square—Tahrir means "liberation"—is not only the main intersection of Cairo; it had become a symbolic center for Friday's events as the day of anger became the week of anger, and a critical mass of Egyptians from various social strata filled the streets. They chanted, "The game is over!" and "Down down with Mubarak!"
People here are calling for Mubarak and his regime to leave power, but they also want to see Mubarak stand trial. Community watch groups patrol the streets with chains, sticks and machetes. Egyptians feel united, powerful and committed to shaping their country's future. For Mubarak, this is a threatening combination, but for the Arab youth it will prove to be a defining time.
The number of dead and injured continues to rise, and impromptu clinics in mosques throughout the city are another sign that Egyptians, already used to solving their own problems, have stepped in to replace the beleaguered government.
Yet uncertainty fills the air. Will the new vice president, the first since the 1980s, and prime minister, act as stepping-stones for Mubarak to make his exit? No one I've spoken with will accept any compromise that includes Mubarak or his regime remaining in power.
Water cannons, tear gas, batons and, at times, live ammunition could not stop the endless waves of people who said that the end of Mubarak's regime had arrived. People held up one another and carried the injured away. I watched as a group of men stood in a circle chanting "God is great!" while a teenager received CPR. One young man showed me a tear gas canister that read "Made in the USA."
As police left the streets, many people began to celebrate and still more started to walk home. Young men carried trophies taken from the police—riot helmets and shields— pausing to have their picture taken by fellow protesters holding cell phones.
Saturday morning, though phone service had been restored, would prove to be the most violent day yet. Demonstrators converged on the Ministry of Information, an infamous symbol of repression and brutality that remains one of the only places in Cairo that police continue to protect. Police fired live rounds into crowds seeking to break in and reveal its incriminating contents: purported torture chambers and state secrets.
The slogan "Welcome to Egypt" lately has taken on an ironic tone. At least we've found a joke that is easily understood across cultures. I've found Egyptians to be warm, kind and extremely good-natured. There is an expression in Arabic: el-dom el-khafif, meaning light-blood. It means that someone is good-natured and has a sense of humor.
Tanks roll through the streets and F-16s fly overhead; businesses are closed, and still people say "welcome" and ask "Where are you from?" and "What do you think of all this?"
As I pass a checkpoint established by neighborhood residents just outside my apartment, they smile; a man offers me the rest of his tea, and everyone assures me that we are safe. "The people in the streets are here to protect us." I'm told, "They are doing the job the police should be doing."
But the situation becomes more political every day, and I wonder how people will accept the transition from a fight in the streets to a fight in the government. Democracy can give voice to people and allow them to choose their leader for the first time in many Egyptians' lifetimes. It can also be a way to satiate people's demands, to give them a chance to speak their voice without really being heard. It provides an outlet for the legitimate grievances of people without providing the means for those issues to be addressed.
While the situation in Egypt has done much to make me appreciate the freedom I enjoy at home, it can also be said that democracy is more potent as a value than a way of governing a country. I would never tell Egyptians that democracy is not worth pursuing, only that they shouldn't stop pursuing it once they have voted.
Alex Mette was working as an intern for the nonprofit group COSPE Egypt, which promotes international cooperation, solidarity, sustainable development and human rights. He was evacuated from Egypt by the U.S. State Department on Feb. 2.