You think you know what Arab rage looks like: wild-eyed young men shouting bellicose verses from the Koran as they hurl themselves against authority, armed with anything from rocks to bomb vests. So who were these impostors gathered in Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square to call for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak? They were smiling and laughing, waving witty banners, organizing spontaneous soccer tournaments and thrusting cigarettes and flowers into the hands of Mubarak's soldiers. They may have turned U.S. policy in the Middle East on its head, but even the American President was moved to praise the people who humbled a staunch Washington ally. Those "who believe in the inevitability of human freedom," Obama said, would be inspired by "the passion and the dignity that has been demonstrated by the people of Egypt."
Those qualities helped undermine one of the Middle East's most durable dictatorships, as well as any number of stereotypes associated with the Arab street. The careful civility energized many thousands of Egyptians who had never marched in protest in their lives to take their families to the city center to assert their claims to freedom. It even seemed to embolden the American President, who like his predecessors has celebrated the prospect of Arab democracy while supporting the dictators who suppress it. Speaking shortly after Mubarak's offer to step down ahead of general elections in the fall, Obama cited the maturity and civic-mindedness of the protesters as reasons for hope that Egypt would deal successfully with difficult questions in the weeks to come.
But the protests brought other scenes, more familiar and more ominous. Power abhors a vacuum, and on Feb. 2, when armed pro-Mubarak forces as faithful to the stereotype as to the President confronted the protesters with rocks and machetes and Molotov cocktails, it reminded the watching world that historic change seldom comes gently: this is no velvet revolution. The rearguard action by Mubarak's thugs felt very much like the final spasms of a dictatorship that won't go quietly. Provoked by the brutal counterattack, the protesters abandoned their peaceful posture and fought back. The square became a battleground between pro- and anti-Mubarak groups, with the military unable or unwilling to intervene.
The battles may continue, but it seems clear that the revolution is won: that Mubarak will go is no longer in doubt. And that's because hundreds of thousands of people across Egypt joined an uprising that in its first exhilarating week felt like none other in the history of the Middle East. So who were the people who pulled it off? Here's a guide:
Most Egyptians who joined anti-Mubarak demonstrations in the week leading up to the Feb. 1 "march of millions" in Tahrir Square say their participation was spontaneous. Many had never attended a political rally before Jan. 25, the first day of protests. But the date and location of that demonstration were hardly impromptu. The event had been planned weeks in advance by a loose coalition of activists who used social-media sites to commemorate Khaled Said, a young Egyptian allegedly beaten to death by police last summer. The cause was joined by some political groups, including the April 6 Youth Movement, named after an industrial strike in 2008, and the Ghad (Tomorrow) Party of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour.
Shadi Taha, 32, a Ghad Party member, says he and fellow organizers chose the date for a reason: Jan. 25 was Police Day, perfect for drawing attention to atrocities committed by a police force renowned for its brutality. A protest at Tahrir Square, the site of past demonstrations like the bread riots in the late 1970s, would be a good way to gain attention from the news media. In the early planning, Taha and his fellow activists envisioned a gathering of about 200 protesters. Then, two weeks before the demonstration, Egyptians, like Arabs everywhere, were mesmerized by the popular uprising in Tunisia. They watched the Jasmine Revolution unfold on satellite TV and saw Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's ruler of more than two decades, flee. "That gave us hope that this might happen in Egypt as well," says Taha.