An Egyptian protester stomps on the roof of a car in Tahrir Square in Cairo… (Associated Press )
CAIRO — As night fell Saturday and cars swerved around Tahrir Square tooting their horns, a stout woman in a black veil and robes screamed herself hoarse: "The president is an agent of the Americans!"
But the protesters who had tried to charge the U.S. Embassy during four days of violent demonstrations had already gone, driven out by the police that morning. Pedestrians covered their mouths and winced when they passed the spots where the police had sprayed hundreds of canisters of tear gas.
Even as Cairo settled back into its normal rhythms, and capitals around the Arab world did the same, the protests over an anti-Muslim video produced in California delivered the same jarring message of uncertainty to ordinary citizens from Tunis to Cairo: They were prisoners of a political transition whose happy ending was far from assured.
The spectacle of political parties fanning the rage of crowds deflated their hope of better governance and stability. The battles with security forces in Cairo; the burning of parts of embassy compounds in Yemen and Tunisia; and the killing in Libya of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans reminded them of the chaos unleashed by the freedoms of the "Arab Spring."
On Saturday night in Tahrir Square, the site of the revolution that ousted longtime pro-American strongman Hosni Mubarak last year, Omar abu Serie had just come from a doctor's appointment and was relieved to see the fighting was over. He stopped in a cafe, sipped a coffee, lighted a cigarette and watched people like him passing through the center of their city.
Serie, 54, took a dim view of the clashes of the last week and admitted no nostalgia for the heady days of revolution when tens of thousands thronged Tahrir demanding justice and equality.
"Before the revolution, people worked and there was quiet. It wasn't a good life, but it was a life," Serie said, almost wistfully.
He said he just wanted to avoid the protests and fighting. The violence unnerves him. "I'm not here for revolutions," he said. "We should enjoy life."
Leaning against a fence in the square, watching the cars whiz by, two friends were chatting. One of them, Rajac Iskandar, a Coptic Christian whose community is worried that the anti-Islam video could unleash a wave of violence against them, remembered the original uprising as inspiring. The 26-year-old spoke of coming down to mingle with his friends and cheer against Mubarak.
Despite that, he said, nothing has gotten better: Corruption has sapped the government and security has vanished. A week ago, he said, he watched a man snatch a cellphone out of someone's hand in Tahrir Square. "The country has no spirit. Problems are the same," Iskandar said sullenly.
In Tunisia, the first of the Arab states to cast off their longtime ruler, people remained shocked by the assault Friday on the U.S. Embassy on the capital, Tunis. They blamed their government for not reining in Islamic extremists and warned that the ruling moderate Islamic Nahda party had played a dangerous game, allowing ultraconservative Salafists to threaten artists and news outlets over the last year.
"The government should have interfered with the Salafists long ago but they waited only until it affected American diplomatic relations," said Intissar Misrati, a 19-year-old university student. "The ruling parties are working on getting their money for themselves and not running the country well."
Tunisia, with its highly educated population and vibrant civil society, had raised the most hope of a successful leap from dictatorship to vibrant democracy. Now the disenchantment is palpable among people as the predictability of autocratic rule has been traded for enigmatic political parties and volatile religious groups.
Ziad Chennoufi, 30, a financial analyst in Tunis, spoke with disgust about Friday's looting and burning of cars in the U.S. Embassy parking lot. He worried that the Tunisian government was just being dragged along with popular passion in the name of preserving power.
"They are focusing on the biggest crowds of people so they can win their votes in the next election," Chennoufi said. "They are not working on security, and no security means no investment and no development."
Though protests diminished Saturday, the State Department ordered family members and nonessential personnel from Tunisia and Sudan, where protesters had scaled the walls of U.S. embassies, citing “the security situation.”
In Yemen, even as tension eased, people saw the sacking of the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Sana, on Thursday as another reminder of how unstable their country remains.
"Locals could be a target of any terrorist attack, due to any religious or political affiliation," said Shatha Harazi, a 27-year-old human rights activist. "I don't feel safe when it comes to the security situation in Yemen, but like many Yemenis, I got used to it."
Special correspondents Radhouane Addala in Tunis and Alaa Jarban in Sana and Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.