CAIRO - Over the past 10 days, the world media has focused on Egypt's youth, 20-something students and unemployed who were born after President Hosni Mubarak came to power; those who used Facebook and Twitter to organize protests, who faced down police truncheons and tear gas, and who from Wednesday on defended Tahrir Square from the mobs who came out to support Mubarak - armed with Molotov cocktails and sharpened sticks.
But it is two much older Cairenes, in their late 60s, who will remain most sharply in my personal memory of the past week. They can still recall King Farouk, and grew up under presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.
Last Sunday morning, after the street battles died down and the police and the looters left, they walked around the square as if in a dream. One stood in the middle and shouted "The people demand the president's departure" and "The people and the army are one hand," until he lost his voice. The other repeatedly approached foreign correspondents, looking for someone who could translate the words he'd written down on a sheet of paper, about the people's desire for freedom. For the first time in their lives, they could finally speak freely.
Were we, the foreign press, infected by the naivete in the square? Were we remiss in not seeing the Muslim Brotherhood's hidden hand behind the events, waiting to turn the democratic revolution into an Islamic one? Can we, for just a moment, turn off our Israeli security sensors and not panic when a demonstrator shouts "Mubarak, go to Israel"?
At the height of Wednesday's battles between pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters, the cry "First the square, then we'll liberate Al Quds" was heard (referring to Jerusalem ). Did this represent a single voice, or an entire nation's desire to go back 32 years in time - to a state of war between Egypt and Israel? It is much too early to tell.
This week we saw a very different side of Egypt. We saw tens of thousands of Egyptians willing to risk their lives to demand change - and a regime willing to risk its economic and social health to save itself, as tens of thousands of supporters defended it with unrestrained violence. And we witnessed a large army, equipped with the latest American technology, incapable of determining its role in the crisis. Last Monday the officers promised to protect the protesters, but Wednesday they stood by as these same demonstrators were attacked by Mubarak loyalist militias.
Perhaps the most appropriate thing to say is that the Egyptians are like us, confused and desperately searching for a way to live in peace and plenty, as individuals and as a society. Now they are grappling with polar opposites - an uncertain, democratic future on the one hand, and the familiar security of limited personal freedom and reliance on an omnipotent regime on the other.
Permit us to wish them success.
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