CAIRO – For days, Cairo teetered on the edge of anarchy as mass protests demanding Hosni Mubarak's ouster spiraled out of control. Government supporters charged into Tahrir Square on camels and horses, trampling protesters. A Nobel Peace laureate was doused with water cannon and trapped in a mosque.
Suffocating clouds of tear gas hung in the air. Ragtag watch groups took turns sitting by bonfires at night to protect their neighborhoods from looters rampaging through the city.
Finally word spread that Mubarak would resign, sending crowds of exuberant citizens poured into the central plaza to hear the televised address. But then he didn't.
It took another day — and hundreds of thousands of defiant protesters flooding the streets, marching on palaces and government buildings — before Mubarak stepped down Friday and handed power to the military.
Two Associated Press reporters recall the mood on the chaotic and dangerous streets during the 18-day uprising — a mixture of disbelief, determination, fear, anger and finally hope.
BLACK WEDNESDAY, A CHAOTIC BLUR, writes al-Shalchi
It's impossible to remember the events of Black Wednesday — as Feb. 2 became known — as a coherent chronology of events.
I couldn't tell you exactly what time the henchmen pushed through the cordon of Tahrir Square protesters, or when gunshots were fired, or when I was punched in the face.
But I do remember faces and smells, and how cold it was.
I saw the first rock being hurled over the heads of the protesters, marking the start of the violence. It went so high up, and was quickly followed by dozens more. It was hard to tell where they came from as pandemonium broke out.
Then there were orange fireballs flashing in the air, the sound of protesters banging rocks against metal in a sort of call to arms, and the steady stream of injured being carried from the front lines — blood flowing down their faces, their hands defiantly raised in V-for-victory signs.
A tree on the side of the famed Egyptian Museum caught fire, its leaves bursting into red flames before the military hosed it down with a water cannon.
After being hit by a pro-Mubarak combatant, a man helped me to relative safety near the human cordon trying to protect the square. Suddenly, the crowd broke open and horses and camels charged through, trampling everybody in their way.
I remember my mouth opening wide in shock, my eyebrows knitted in disbelief. What just happened? Were those ... horses? Their riders carried sticks and whips. One whip was red. All I could hear was the horses neighing and people screaming. It only lasted a few minutes.
I wove through the square all night, memorizing every corner. This was the day the sprawling downtown plaza turned into occupied territory. Protesters quickly created a makeshift hospital, a jail where captured Mubarak supporters were held, a tea shop — even a stable for the horses that had been captured.
The protesters organized themselves into tasks. Some rallied forces, calling out, "Steady! Steady! Keep strong!" Others led an effort to break up the pavement and create piles of rocks for use as weapons.
"If you have rested, then make your way to the battle!" women yelled at men drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, many with bandages tied around their heads.
The makeshift hospital near a Hardee's felt like a full-blown emergency room. Doctors in scrubs and white lab coats stitched up people's heads and wrapped legs in gauze. The chief doctor stood on a chair, bellowing instructions through a megaphone. He didn't have much time to talk, telling me, "We are in a state of war, my dear."
One man's face was destroyed by a rock, his eyeball half out of its socket, blood everywhere.
"Allahu akbar!" — "God is great!" — men yelled as they hauled their wounded comrades to the care of the medics.
It began to rain.
Men and women raised their hands in prayer, calling out to God for success. Others dampened their hands with the rainwater and wiped their faces, letting it mix with their tears.
A woman, dressed in a long robe and wearing a disheveled headscarf, struggled alongside a group of men dragging a blanket filled with pieces of rocks. Her glasses sat lopsided on her face, the sweat on her brow and nose visible from where I was siting on the edge of a fence near the battle lines.
Another woman carried six water bottles in her arms for people trying to rest. I took a swig and asked her, "Aren't you scared to get so close to the rocks being hurled?" She replied eagerly: "I am happy, I am so happy!"
But it was friend of mine, Youssef, who best captured the mood of that day. He had been on the square since the protests started on Jan. 25, wearing a checkered scarf over his face and spray-painting Mubarak's face on walls and doors with the word "Leave."
A quiet, skinny young man with a free spirit, he seemed to be everywhere — popping up like a guardian angel. He took photos, wrapped bandages on people's heads, tried to build a catapult, checked up on me, hurled rocks.
DEFIANCE IN THE FACE OF DESPAIR, writes El Deeb
A famous Egyptian satirical writer once described Tahrir Square as the "the biggest open air museum for injustice." It was — and it was more so on Thursday night, when Mubarak announced that he was going to stay on as president.
Hundreds of thousands flowed into the huge plaza as reports spread that Mubarak was going to step down in a televised speech. The air was electric and the protesters were ready to celebrate.
Everyone fell silent as he appeared on a huge screen set up in the square. Some strained to hear Mubarak's words on big speakers broadcasting national radio. Others held cell phones to their ears as people back home held their handsets up against television sets.
Demonstrators, some sick from nights sleeping in the outdoor protest camp, huddled together in tents. Celebrities performed nationalist songs and attracted large crowds, all in anticipation of the big announcement. Many people were in the square for the first time — smiles were everywhere.
Victory seemed near: After nearly 30 years — a lifetime for many of us — it appeared Mubarak was going to cave into pressure and step down.
I joined protest organizers in a tent to listen to the speech. One organizer held a phone to her ear and repeated what Mubarak was saying for the rest of us. Her voice was loud and steady, then became faint as the speech went on, with Mubarak appearing to exonerate himself from what he called "mistakes" in any political system.
One woman put her hand on her forehead, another's eyes filled with tears. When Mubarak said he would serve out his term, the organizer dropped the phone. Someone else had to pick it up to continue listening.
I poked my head out of the tent in time to see protesters taking off their shoes and raising them in the air, a sign of deep disrespect in Arab society. Others broke into chants of "Go! Go!" and called on the masses to march on Mubarak's Cairo palace.
"He wants to set the whole place on fire," one organizer said. "He just won't let go." Another cursed and dropped onto his back on the tent floor.
The faces of men and women who had spoken to me of suffering and injustice they endured under the Mubarak regime flashed before my eyes.
A government official who had been threatened by thugs waving knives in his face because he refused to stuff ballot boxes in favor of the ruling party in last year's elections.
A man who said his cousin had drowned at sea because authorities refused to send a rescue boat when they realized he had no Westerners with him.
And a young man who told me horror stories about his 50-day detention, during which he was tortured with electric shocks because he was suspected of knowing where a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood was hiding. His hands were swollen, his scars still raw, and he shook when he walked from the abuse.
But to my amazement, despair quickly turned into heated defiance, and many began marching toward the state TV building and Mubarak's palace. Others shouted slogans against Mubarak in the square.
It had been that way from the opening salvos of the uprising.
On Jan. 28 — dubbed the Friday of Anger — I was besieged in an alley with thousands of others as security forces battered us with tear gas and water cannons for hours.
ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, was cornered with hundreds of his supporters in a mosque courtyard, where he had fled, dripping with water after being targeted by the hoses.
It was hard to breathe. But one young man was determined not to back down. He walked through the cloud of acrid white smoke toward the security forces and picked up a still-burning tear gas canister. He threw it back at them.
"I am here for revenge!" he shouted. "I won't leave! They will!"