Archive for February, 2011

The Right to the Unknown

February 11th, 2011  |  Published in Politics

Tahrir Square, Feb 11 2001 (Image by Matthew Cassell)

The most moving and insightful comment I've seen on the Egyptian revolution of 2011 appeared, appropriately enough, on Twitter. Last night, after Hosni Mubarak punked the nation with his non-resignation speech, Alaa Abd El Fattah said this:

don't know what will happen. pre #Jan25 I could predict tomorrow will be like today and yesterday, we revolt to gain the right to unkown

I only know what WE WANT and what I WILL DO

In ordinary times, tomorrow is like today, and the future is predictable--not just in Egypt but everywhere. The essence of revolutionary moments is not any particular set of demands or changes, but their very unknowability. And that sense that the future is unwritten--the "right to the unknown"--is a rare and thrilling and sometimes terrifying kind of human freedom.

Today, with Hosni Mubarak finally departing the scene, many are warning that the Egyptian army may yet perpetuate the old regime and snatch away the dreams of the protesters in Liberation Square. And they may yet do so. But those who issue such warnings are the same people who predicted that the Tunisian revolution would not spread, that the Egyptian protests would not grow, and that Hosni Mubarak would not give up power. They are the people who predicted that today would be like yesterday--but it isn't, not anymore.

If you predict that the improbable won't happen, you will usually be proven right. But eventually you will be wrong, and when you are you will be proven very, very wrong. Wall Street bankers made money for years by betting against improbable events--until the improbable occurred, the housing market collapsed, and we were plunged into a financial crisis. In the same way, professional Egyptologists padded their wallets and their reputations by predicting, year after year, that Mubarak could not fall.

But today none of that matters. Whatever else they may yet achieve, the Egyptian people have ensured that their future is unknown, for at least a few more months.