11/23/2011 11:28 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2012

Tahrir Square, Seen From the Rest of Cairo

A little before 4 p.m. on Tuesday I sat on a ledge across the Nile from downtown and watched a steady trickle become a rush of protesters towards Tahrir Square. A constant remark among foreigners (though an unfazing reality to most Egyptians) is how close you can be to the "action" without feeling like it. Men drank tea in front of pristinely-kept gardens and watched as protestors, including a family of four with gas masks around their necks, walked past. "Are you going to Tahrir?" I asked one of them. "God willing," he responded with a smile, "after tea."

A major difference between the current protests and their counterparts in January is that back then violence was never sustained for this long, and primarily occurred on three nonconsecutive days. At the same time, Mubarak's cutting of Internet and phone lines drove large numbers to the square and neighborhoods all over Cairo had an anarchic feel in which small groups of men defended neighborhoods with knives and clubs. Unlike back then, there is no curfew.

While many expected a million-strong demonstration Tuesday, the rest of Cairo, and much of the country (barring the shocking violence in Alexandira and other major cities) is going about their daily lives as normal. Twitter and the news cycle focus the world's lens on Tahrir, where the news is being made, while the rest of Egypt is still waiting to decide whether this is their second revolution.

Issandr El Amrani of The Arabist, one of the best blogs in English here, wrote, "I have an uncomfortable take... it's that the fighting is being sustained by the protestors, not by the police." "Everyone is excited and wants to participate, to get their chance to be a hero," he continues. He concludes that "Egyptians want to feel like they've actually had a revolution. Whoever gives them that feeling might win the people in Tahrir over."

In between the tweets from the square, which range in tone from the dramatic to the practical to the heartening, occasionally someone buds in to temper the urge towards the sensational. Journalist Lauren Bohm wrote on Twitter that residents of the poorer neighborhood of Imbaba said the protests are an "attempt to drive Egypt into chaos." Joseph Mayton, another journalist, tried to counter: "Everywhere I have been today, ppl angry at military/police - lots want to join #Tahrir - stark contrast to reports of wanting "stability." Every claim as to what "ordinary Egyptians" are thinking is greeted with skepticism, because after all it's their outlooks that will supposedly be discovered with free elections.

At the same time, Twitter is a strange space where the dispassionate tone of reporting journalists begins to blur with the activist's propensity to dramatize. But when self-described dispassionate journalists thrust themselves into the thick of battle, it's difficult to see how they can emerge from the tear gas unradicalized.

That night I sat in an outdoor café catching up with several journalists and NGO workers who had been in and out of the chaos. At one point, the din of the café dropped to a hush. Most of the women and men rushed from their shisha into the single small room where Field Marshall Tantawi began his speech from the barely audible television.

Everyone struggled to hear as he declared that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces accepted the resignation of the cabinet, promised a presidential election by July of next year, and said elections will be held next week as planned. Scoffs and snickers were hushed by several men in the middle of the room. "He makes Mubarak look charismatic," someone jeered. When the speech ended, the whole crowd started chanting in a powerful repetition "The people want the fall of the Field Marshall!" A man turned to me, incredulous: "It's the same scenario, the same system," he said.

I glanced down at a tweet by Mahmoud Salem, a blogger turned parliamentary candidate: "Spoke to many people outside #tahrir," he wrote. "The majority liked the #tantawispeech. Just an fyi."

On the abstract plane of politics, the buzz of perspectives from Western and Egyptian commentators is as messy as the pitched battle that endlessly waxes and wanes just off the square. Thanassis Cambanis, in The Atlantic, began an article with an open question: "The spasm of state violence here over the weekend marks one of two things: either an entrenchment of military dictatorship, or the long-deferred resumption of the January 25 uprising." Marc Lynch, a professor of political science and blogger for Foreign Policy magazine, tempered his analysis: "I don't expect that the Tahrir fighting is going to spark a second popular revolution, but I could easily be wrong," he wrote. He tweeted the next day: "Glad everyone is so certain about what's going to happen in Egypt and what every key actor is thinking. I'm not."

But even if Tuesday was not quite the flood of popular outrage some predicted, a mood of utter seriousness, totally alien to the festive family-friendly atmosphere that marked weekly Friday demonstrations, has taken over. For the first time, it seems, nobody can confidently give an assessment of what is going on, what will happen, and what it means, which is probably the closest parallel yet to January.