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Kunin: Sea Change Surprise

02/17/11 7:55AM By Madeleine M. Kunin
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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin has been thinking about the uprising in Egypt - and why practically nobody saw it coming.

(KUNIN)  The most dramatic political sea changes in modern times caught us by surprise: neither the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 nor the fall of President Mubarak last week was forecast.

Thousands of historians, journalists, politicians, pundits and soothsayers make their living trying to predict the future. Why were they so blind-sided by the demonstrations in Tahrir Square?

Why was the Richter scale of revolution unable to detect the rumbling underneath the earth’s crust that shifted the political landscape in Egypt? The aftershocks are still being felt in the region, and no one knows how far they will reach, whether they will abate or increase in intensity.

One reason we're caught by surprise by political upheavals is that it's hard to keep our ears to the ground. It's easier to do what's obvious - communicate with the leaders, with the military, with whoever is in power - than to understand what motivates those who are not in power. Change is thought to be a gradual process that occurs over a period of years, not within eighteen short days. Change is thought to be instigated by the leaders, not by the leaderless.

When we were tourists in Egypt five just years ago, no one even whispered about the possibility of overthrowing the government.  Five years ago no one yet knew about the organizing power of Google, Facebook and Twitter. I remember the huge posters of Mubarak which lined the highway from the airport to our hotel. There was no accompanying text acclaiming his greatness. His unadorned photograph was enough to proclaim him the supreme ruler.

There was an airport screening device in our hotel, but the guards smiled and signaled us to go around it. Like all tourists, we only saw the calm surface, not what was seething underneath. The only hint that all was not well in Egypt were the signs of poverty, shoeless children on dirt roads and hovels instead of houses.

The unpredictability of the Egyptian revolution can be seen as an intelligence failure. But unpredictability can also be celebrated as a revelation of the human spirit.  We do not control events.  Human aspirations. deeply embedded for so many years, spring to the surface. National pride, so long stifled, is resurrected as the demonstrators dance in the streets, shouting,"We are Egyptians, we are free!"

What’s next?   

Will Egypt be overtaken by Islam? One look at the faces in the crowd - men and women - tells me no. "Women are key actors in this historical moment in Egypt," said a Cairo professor of feminism.

It will not be easy to translate revolution into democracy. Just as we could not predict the uprising, we cannot fully predict what happens next. History is full of surprises.
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