02/11/2011 06:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Two Obamas of Tahrir Square

Among the thousands of signs held up at Tahrir, in many of the world's languages, not a few address Barack Obama, usually in English: "Come to Tahrir Square" they say to him, come see for yourself what we are doing. Twittering and blogging, shouting and marching, many of the young rebels against Mubarak's régime say the same thing: "If you were here, if you could experience our revolt and our suffering, you would join with us in saying that Mubarak must leave now."

But there are in fact two Obamas who are already strong presences at the Square: The first Obama is the one whose own political campaign articulated many of the same aspirations as the young bloggers and graduates like Wael Ghonim, whose tearful passion so inspired his elders and contemporaries. "Yes, we can" was a motto of hope in the process of politics and activism. It said that 'we' can participate effectively, democratically, in government, in elections so as to achieve reform, efficiency and fairness. To a large extent, though, the 'we' of the motto was undefined, non-partisan, vague. Obama had a program and a party, of course. Still the great appeal of his campaign was to transcend the divisions of partisanship, even at the cost of downplaying his own program's bite and challenge. This was the Obama who spoke in Cairo in June, 2009, calling, gingerly, for reform and democracy. This is not a trivial or unimportant presence, however we name it, at Tahrir. Revolutions always begin in a flash of emotion--anger, yes, but also hope and optimism--that calls out to many, many people with only vague or imprecise ambitions for themselves and their governments. Often they begin with the simple statement that "we won't take it anymore," symbolized in just such a tragedy as the Tunisian vendor who burnt himself in protest.

The second Obama is the cautious Obama of interests and calculations, in this case, vis-a-vis Egypt, the Obama of the American presidency, with its careful, cautious balancing of stability in the Middle East against the more and more obvious need, urgent but long deferred, for reform and democracy in the same region. The first Obama could well be an activist or lawyer protesting oppression in the Square; the second Obama hesitates, "waffles," as the cleverer, English-savvy protesters say into microphones, unsure which way to push and whom to cheer.

The truth is that the situation in Tahrir is the classic one of revolution: The excitement, the exhilaration of a revolt, a kind of mass political ecstasy, experienced by thousands and thousands of people united in a cause that seems, for the moment, simple. "Leave now, leave now," they say to Mubarak (and he should!). Jean Paul Sartre romanticized this rare and thrilling experience in page after page of his dense 1960 treatise on revolt and revolution. Such experiences, such 'collective actions' matter: they change expectations and cultures, they change politics and thereby institutions, they make history.

What they don't do is make either politics or history simple. They don't lead us in straight lines into better times or better government. (The experience of the Obama administration in its first two years is an illustration of the problem.)

Tahrir Square has gathered up all sorts of Egyptians in a revolt that has now spread to all the cities of this vast, ancient nation. It has been generations since they have experienced something like this. It will change their nation and their lives. But, as Obama often says, not simply, not easily, and perhaps not soon.