02/16/2011 07:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Inside Tahrir Square

CAIRO, Egypt -- I was sitting in a hotel room in Amman, Jordan staring at Omar Suleiman's grim face on television as he read his 20-second statement on Friday night that Hosni Mubarak had at last been deposed. As the screen showed the throng going nuts in Tharir Square, I booked a seat on the next flight out Saturday morning.

Sitting behind me on the plane was a senior UN official flying in to see if the new military authorities would seek U.N. help to run the elections they have now promised within six months. If they accept the UN offer it would be an early indicator of the military's sincerity in bringing accountable government to this ancient nation for the first time. The UN could also help Egypt monitor human rights and rewrite its constitution, as the UN did in post-Saddam Iraq, if the military lets them.

I arrived less than 24 hours after Mubarak's fall at the Cairo Downtown Hotel, a half block from the revolution's epicenter in Tahrir Square. The hotel is in an Art Nouveau building, badly faded, cats on the grand marble steps, trash in the once functioning wrought-iron lift. I stepped out onto the balcony in my room and there below me was the scene millions around the world were watching at that moment on TV: Ecstatic Egyptians stretching as far and wide as I could see all the way to the Kasr al-Nil Bridge over the river, where pitched battles had raged a week before.

The sun was going down as I walked into the crowd: women, with their heads covered and uncovered, old and young men, and children overcome with a new reality even they could not have imagined three weeks ago. A young man on a 100-foot lamppost swayed an oversized Egyptian flag to the roar of the crowd below. Children on their father's shoulders, men on the shoulders of their friends waded through the people, inexhaustibly crying shouts of victory and liberation. Fireworks still exploded overhead.

I could not help but wonder what Mubarak might be thinking at that moment in his Sharm El-Sheikh palace: The people who he thought loved him where shooting off fireworks because they'd at last seen the back of him. "How ungrateful these people are after all I've done for (or to) them," he must have thought.

On Sunday morning the crowds were back, only slightly smaller than the night before. Some men were still engaged in passionate debate. Political leaders spoke from a platform set up in front of a Hardee's fast-food outlet. I walked toward the Kasr al-Nil bridge. Barbed wire and burned out vehicles still littered the streets. Young volunteers were painting the sidewalk curbs in black and white and washing anti-Mubarak graffiti from the walls. (Below the streets inside subway trains the Metro station Mubarak had been scratched off the maps, but the "Mubarak" signs still hang unmarked on the station walls.)

From the bridge I could see the burned-out hulk of the headquarters of Mubarak's National Democratic Party Headquarters. The bridge was full of families taking pictures of their children, their faces painted with the Egyptian flag, standing on tanks, their little arms thrust skyward flashing the victory sign.

Egyptians lived with such pent up misery and lack of self-regard that foreigners were always treated with more respect. But that has literally changed over night, from Friday to Saturday. There is a new swagger on the streets.

"I used to be really ashamed to be Egyptian," one man told me. "Now I am proud of our flag." It now belongs to the Egyptian people, not Mubarak's cronies. It reminded me how some in the anti-Vietnam war movement in the U.S. had adopted the American flag as a protest to show it belonged to the American people and not the elite waging that unpopular war.

Back in the square I saw army soldiers in red berets evicting women and children from the makeshift tents of sticks and camel hair blankets many had been living in during the revolt. But all around them people were still celebrating in disbelief that 30 years of tyranny had crumbled under the might of their peaceful protest.

"I had given up 20 years ago," said Walid, who works the front desk at the Cairo Downtown. "I gave up on education, knowledge, lifestyle. Now I feel reborn, man!"

Below the hotel is a clinic where the wounded were brought during the days of the worst pitched battles between the people and the despised police, who were firing tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and live ammunition into the crowd. Sonni, who runs the hotel, told me he could hear a doctor on a megaphone pleading with police to back out of the clinic, where they had entered to keep firing on wounded protesters. "Please leave these people alone, they are no longer any threat to you," the doctor cried.

Tear gas wafted into the hotel through the closed windows. The guests here were holed up for three days, terrified to venture to the street below. Sonni saw dead bodies in the street from the balcony of the room I now occupy.

By Monday traffic had returned to normal around the square as the military pleaded with workers to get back to work. But that morning I saw policemen in the square assembling and setting out on a march, even though they'd been given a 100% pay raise that morning. The day before policemen had apologized to the people in a demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry.

On Tuesday night an uglier side of the people's uprising emerged, as groups of aggressive young men dominated the square, harassing the very few foreign women living here who dared go near the square. There are no tourists in Egypt. Gone were most of the jubilant women and children and older men.

A group of youths surrounded me and wouldn't let me pass, and despite my refusals, painted the black, white and red flag on both my cheeks. They then demanded 20 Egyptian pounds, about $4, and became agitated when I refused. I gave them 10 pounds and quickly left. A couple of days earlier, to mix into the crowd, I didn't shave, dressed down and stuck a small Egyptian flag in my pocket. That didn't stop a pickpocket from snatching my iPhone and with it two days of video from inside the square.

That is nothing to complain about compared to 300 people dead. Or to what happened to TV reporters like Lara Logan. I had learned that Fox News barred their employees from leaving their hotel on Saturday. Now I know why. Revolutions give unfortunate opportunity to knaves and thugs.

For the United States, the contradictory American foreign policy of supporting both democracy and dictators abroad came to an excruciating head in Egypt.

President Obama was squeezed in the middle of these colliding policies that have been six decades in the making. Mubarak was just the last in a long line of autocrats the U.S. has supported since 1945 for strategic and economic interests, while publicly calling for the export of democracy.

The Cold War was ostensibly the reason for propping up Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, Augusto Pinochet and other military dictators in Latin America and the Shah in Iran. In the latter case the U.S. overthrew a democracy in 1953 to install a king in a reversal of 1776. 26 years later the results of that coup brought us the Ayatollah's regime, which the U.S. would now sorely like overthrown itself.

When faced with the kind of dilemma that Obama was in between democracy and a dictatorship that serves U.S. interests, the U.S. has in the past chosen dictatorship. For instance, democratically-elected leaders in Guatemala in 1954 and in Chile in 1973 were swept aside for brutal military juntas.

George W. Bush's idea of installing democracy was to impose it through invasion, but events in Egypt show it can only be built from the ground up. The price of maintaining a peace treaty with Israel and defending against an exaggerated threat of local Islamists, managed and exploited by Mubarak, was the repression of 80 million Egyptians for three decades.

As that frustration and fear finally exploded during 18 days of its stunning revolution, Egyptians here hung on every word from President Obama, who on Tuesday defended what appeared to be a vacillating course from backing Mubarak, to asking for immediate change, to letting him hang on until September, with his henchman, Omar Suleiman, in control.

Obama's Cairo speech had softened anti-American attitudes here, but the president's inability to come down firmly on the side of the people, caught as Obama was in the post-war vice of pushing two opposing policies, confused and angered many Egyptians.

Americans living in Cairo also looked to the latest U.S. pronouncements to decide whether it was safe to venture into the street.

All this may not have happened had Mubarak made earlier concessions instead of being in denial about the hatred with which he was held. It may have ended without bloodshed had Obama earlier on told Mubarak to go and the military to uphold the peace treaty with Israel or risk $1.3 billion in annual military aid. The military has since said it will honor the treaty. It is hard to imagine Egyptians electing a government that would want another war with Israel. The country can't afford it and the people want to speak their mind and have a better standard of living.

Egypt is not the Iran of 1979, which overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah. For one thing there is no powerful religious leader exiled in Paris like the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose speeches on audio cassettes helped spark the Iranian revolution that paved the way for his return to Iran and assumption of power after outmaneuvering secular revolutionary groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not the threat U.S. and Israeli rhetoric make it out to be. It has renounced violence and said it would not put up a presidential candidate. The Brotherhood only commands about 20 to 30 percent of Egyptians' support. It knows that if it tried any extra-parliamentary paths to power it would have the people to reckon with in the streets.

This is what made this uprising so extraordinary. That it spontaneously grew from ordinary Egyptians who were so fed up with their repression that they risked their lives to break it.

It was not an easy call for the president. He had decades of a cross-purposed U.S. policy to deal with.