Mohammad Nagi, 35, waves the Egyptian flag heading down Brookhurst Street… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
I'm not Egyptian. I don't have any Egyptian friends. I've never had more than a passing interest in the shifting politics of the Middle East.
So why was I so obsessively bound to the images of Egypt's grass-roots rebellion?
I watched the protests on my kitchen television while I cooked dinner, and on my laptop in bed until I fell asleep. I kept my car radio tuned to NPR, so I could keep up on my commute. I bombarded my daughters with such frequent updates, they began avoiding me.
It wasn't just my "news junkie" hunger, and I wasn't the only one enthralled. Viewership of CNN last week rose almost 40% among the station's key news demographic: people between 25 and 54.
I could have predicted that, given the drama of its extended coverage. What I couldn't have foreseen was the sense of investment shared with strangers at random moments:
In the waiting room at Jiffy Lube, a college girl seated next to me was following the protest on Al Jazeera, through a smart-phone link on her Facebook page. "Wow," she kept murmuring; she held the screen up for me to see the thousands gathered in Tahrir Square.
Later, in a slow-moving drugstore line, an elderly Asian woman shared my impatience; neither of us wanted to miss the moment that Hosni Mubarak was expected to announce his intention to step down. "It is so amazing," she said, shaking her head in wonder, "what those Egyptian young people have done."
She used the word "proud," and I understood what she meant. We were all Egyptian at that moment. Anything was possible if those voiceless masses pulled this off.
To the outside world, the Egyptian revolt seemed to burst from thin air, with riveting images of protest and conflict, heroes and villains, clashing visions of past and future that teetered day to day between calamity and celebration.
In reality, it was a power play long in the making, orchestrated by smart young Egyptians drawing on the lessons of other nations and harnessing social networks as a political force under the radar of established leaders.
That's a less romantic tale than the spontaneous eruption of collective anger delivered by the televised version. But it's a better omen for success in the long, hard slog toward democracy that this newly emboldened nation now faces.
I realized that struggle won't be nearly so inspiring to watch as I suffered through withdrawal watching CNN this weekend. Political hacks trading barbs about a 'straw poll' victor who cannot win; a 'human behavior expert' trying to explain a married congressman's shirtless foray into online dating. Is this what Egyptians have in store?
I couldn't stand the letdown. So on Sunday I headed for Cafe Dahab, a Westside restaurant with a hookah lounge and big screen TV, sure it would draw celebratory throngs. But the restaurant was almost empty; the television was tuned to a basketball game. The only customers I saw were crowded around tables outside, passing hookah pipes around.
Peter Mankarious, son of the Egyptian owners, told me the restaurant had been packed all week with news crews and customers — "more white people than Egyptians," he said.
He has his own perspective on why his country's struggle became an international cause celebre. "You don't need a lesson in Egypt's history to understand its place in the world," he told me.
"It's more than just a country; it's a symbol," he said. "There's so much that Egypt has done for the world, it's hard not to root for the people of Egypt, to want good things to happen, for everything to work out well."
The emigres who gathered at the restaurant last week were "obviously happy" at the outcome. "That's the reason they got out of Egypt," he said. "They knew it was bound to happen." Egypt could only be dragged so low.
But what is less certain among them, he said, is whether the once-proud country can rebound, can rebuild itself as a democratic nation. "There is a saying you hear, that things can go two ways: It's gonna go bad, or really bad," Mankarious said.
The problems go deeper than a crooked dictator, he said. Poverty is rampant, the masses are uneducated, the police have long been brutal and corrupt. "Everyone calls Mubarak the devil. But now that he's gone," Mankarious said, "the problems will not disappear."
Saddled with memories of how bad things were, it may be hard for those who left Egypt behind to believe in the democratic vision that fuels outsiders, like me, rooting their country on.
Mankarious' family came to California before he born; he grew up near Santa Monica. Now 22, he's a biology major at UCLA, aiming for a career in pulmonary medicine.
His relatives back in Egypt are part of the wealthy elite, with mansions and drivers and no need to mix with shoe-waving protesters in the street. The days of protest for people like them "were mostly an inconvenience," he said.
Asked about his life here, he shrugged and grinned. "I'm just an American kid. A good life, all kinds of friends. A lot of opportunities."
We chatted while I finished my meal. Then I thanked him — and his countrymen — awkwardly. I tried to explain how inspiring it was to see so many young people claiming their rights, protesting nonviolently, with strength and dignity.
I was about to start babbling about Martin Luther King, to share my own protest stories. A "We shall overcome…" moment was coming on. Thank goodness he stopped me before I could sing.
"Thank you," he responded, wrapping an arm around my shoulders as I rose to leave. "Thank you so much."
And I wasn't sure whether he was thanking me for my patronage or the privilege of my country's democracy.