The future of the Arab world, perched between revolt and the contempt of a crumbling order, was fought in the streets of downtown Cairo on Wednesday.
Tens of thousands of protesters who have reimagined the very notion of citizenship in a tumultuous week of defiance proclaimed with sticks, Molotov cocktails and a shower of rocks that they would not surrender their revolution to the full brunt of an authoritarian government that answered their calls for change with violence.
The Arab world watched a moment that suggested it would never be the same again — and waited to see whether protest or crackdown would win the day. Words like uprising and revolution only hint at the scale of events in Egypt, which have already reverberated across Yemen, Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia, offering a new template for change in a region that long reeled from its own sense of stagnation.
“Every Egyptian understands now,” said Magdi al-Sayyid, one of the protesters.
The protesters have spoken for themselves to a government that, like many across the Middle East, treated them as a nuisance. For years, pundits have predicted that Islamists would be the force that toppled governments across the Arab world. But so far, they have been submerged in an outpouring of popular dissent that speaks to a unity of message, however fleeting — itself a sea change in the region’s political landscape. In the vast panorama of Tahrir Square on Wednesday, Egyptians manned makeshift barricades, belying pat dismissals of the power of the Arab street.
“The street is not afraid of governments anymore,” said Shawki al-Qadi, an opposition lawmaker in Yemen, itself roiled by change. “It is the opposite. Governments and their security forces are afraid of the people now. The new generation, the generation of the Internet, is fearless. They want their full rights, and they want life, a dignified life.”
The power of Wednesday’s stand was that it turned those abstractions into reality.
The battle was waged by Mohammed Gamil, a dentist in a blue tie who ran toward the barricades of Liberation Square. It was joined by Fayeqa Hussein, a veiled mother of seven who filled a Styrofoam container with rocks. Magdi Abdel-Rahman, a 60-year-old grandfather, kissed the ground before throwing himself against crowds mobilized by a state bent on driving them from the square. And the charge was led by Yasser Hamdi, who said his 2-year-old daughter would live a life better than the one he endured.
“Aren’t you men?” he shouted. “Let’s go!”
As the crowd pushed back the government’s men, down a street of airline offices, banks and a bookstore called L’Orientaliste, Mr. Abdel-Rahman made clear the stakes.
“They want to take our revolution from us,” he declared.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition force, has entered the fray. In a poignant moment, its followers kneeled in prayer at dusk, their faces lighted by the soft glow of burning fires a stone’s throw away. But Mr. Abdel-Rahman’s description of the uprising as a revolution suggested that the events of the past week had overwhelmed even the Brotherhood, long considered the sole agent of change here.
Dignity was a word often used Wednesday, and its emphasis underlined the breadth of a movement that is, so far, leaderless. Neither the Brotherhood nor a handful of opposition leaders — men like Mohammed ElBaradei or Ayman Nour — have managed to articulate hopelessness, the humiliations of the police and the outrage at having too little money to get married, echoed in the streets of Palestinian camps in Jordan and in the urban misery of Baghdad’s Sadr City. For many, the Brotherhood itself is a vestige of an older order that has failed to deliver.
“The problem is that for 30 years, Mubarak didn’t let us build an alternative,” said Adel Wehba, as he watched the tumult in the square. “No alternative for anything.”
The very lack of an alternative may have given rise to the uprising, making the street the last option for not only the young and dispossessed but also virtually every element of Egypt’s population — turbaned clerics, businessmen from wealthy suburbs, film directors and well-to-do engineers. Months ago, despair at the prospect of change in the Arab world was commonplace. Protesters on Wednesday acted as though they were making a last stand at what they had won, in an uprising that is distinctly nationalist.
“He won’t go,” Mr. Mubarak’s supporters chanted on the other side.
“He will go,” went the reply. “We’re not going to go.”
The word “traitor” rang out Wednesday. The insult was directed at Mr. Mubarak, and it echoed the sentiment heard in so many parts of the Arab world these days — governments of an American-backed order in most of the region have lost their legitimacy, built on the idea that people would surrender their rights for the prospect of security and stability. In the square on Wednesday, protesters offered an alternative, their empowerment standing as possibly the most remarkable legacy of a people who often lamented their apathy.
Everyone seemed joined in the moment, fists, batons and rocks banging any piece of metal to rally themselves. A man stood on a tank turret, urging protesters forward. Another cried as he shouted at Mr. Mubarak’s men. “Come here!” he said. “Here is where’s right.” Men and women ferried rocks in bags, cartons and boxes to the barricades. Bassem Yusuf, a heart surgeon, heard news of the clashes on television and headed to the square at dusk, stitching wounds at a makeshift clinic run by volunteers.
“We’re not going to destroy our country,” said Mohammed Kamil, a 48-year-old, surging with the crowd. “We’re not going to let this dog make us do that.”
From minute-by-minute coverage on Arabic channels to conversations from Iraq to Morocco, the Middle East watched breathlessly at a moment as compelling as any in the Arab world in a lifetime. For the first time in a generation, Arabs seem to be looking again to Egypt for leadership, and that sense of destiny was voiced throughout the day.
“I tell the Arab world to stand with us until we win our freedom,” said Khaled Yusuf, a cleric from Al Azhar, a once-esteemed institution of religious scholarship now beholden to the government. “Once we do, we’re going to free the Arab world.”
For decades, the Arab world has waited for a savior — be it Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian president or even, for a time, Saddam Hussein. No one was waiting for a savior on Wednesday. Before three decades of accumulated authority — the power of a state that can mobilize thousands to heed its whims — people had themselves.
“I’m fighting for my freedom,” Noha al-Ustaz said as she broke bricks on the curb. “For my right to express myself. For an end to oppression. For an end to injustice.”
“Go forward,” the cries rang out, and she did, disappearing into a sea of men.
Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut.
This article, Arab World Faces Its Uncertain Future, first appeared in The New York Times.