Two days ago, I could go into Cairo's Liberation (Tahrir) Square and have a reasonable -- if occasionally passionate conversation with some of the thousands of protesters demanding President Hosni Mubarak call it quits immediately.
The Egyptian military had provided a safe zone for protesters, and for just about anyone else, even television crews. English-speaking Egyptians would seek us out, introducing themselves for the chance to give their perspective on why they wanted change and wanted it now. I even ran into some Mubarak supporters, far fewer of them in this square, but also reasonable people. At least a half-dozen times, an Egyptian passerby would stop me just to say, "Welcome to Egypt."
Today I wouldn't go anywhere near the square. This city's streets have become a battlefield for opposing street armies. Mubarak supporters, often hired thugs, have seized chunks of downtown territory outside the square itself. Passing through those areas is a high risk adventure. Media and Westerners generally have become prime targets. I'm all for taking reasonable risks, but I learned a long time ago that there's a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Today at least, we'll keep our distance.
I can hear the crowd of protesters chanting in Liberation square as I write this. Of course they still want Mubarak gone, in fact, they're more dug in about it than ever since they've been attacked by thugs supporting the Egyptian president. Now my Arabic language skills are one step above drawing pictures. But even so, I can hear a difference in the the crowd noise. A couple days ago, in calmer times, the chanting of the crowd was passionate and enthusiastic. Now they're fervid, even angry. Their call for change has become a demand. No compromise. Being attacked has reminded them of the reason they wanted Mubarak gone in the first place.
It would be interesting to hear their take on the last couple days. But that's an opportunity I'm not going to get today, and probably not tomorrow. Not until the streets of Cairo calm down again, and everyone feels safe and welcome.