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The ripple effects from Egypt

The early wave of excitement inspired by the Arab uprisings has given way to unease, both here and in the Middle East.

Most of the revolts look unlikely to end well. When Yemen's leader goes, tribal conflict seems the likely outcome. If Syria's dictator falls, ethnic and sectarian bloodshed will probably follow. No one seems to have a clue about who can hold Libya together after Moammar Gadhafi.

And skeptics are even skewering the prospects for positive change in Egypt, the bellwether of the region, arguing that the idealistic youths who deposed an autocrat will have little impact on the political outcome.

Typical is Ian Bremmer, the thoughtful president of Eurasia Group, who warned, "We should not go looking at Egypt as if it's a successful revolution." He said we should view it as "a managed transition," in which any new elected government will be weak and the military will remain the most powerful player.

I beg to differ. I think an important revolution has occurred in Egypt, one that will have ripple effects throughout the region (although it may be years before we see the full impact). I refer not to a revolutionary shift in Egypt's political system, but to a revolution in thinking -- to be specific, in the way Egyptians think about their relationship to government.

"For the first time, we are feeling that our problems must be solved by us, not by Americans, or by God," said Hossam Bahgat, the dynamic young executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human-rights advocacy group in Cairo.

Throughout the Middle East, a passive public has tended to attribute its powerlessness against autocrats to conspiracies of the West or Israel, or to unseen forces. The Tahrir Square rebellion changed that thought pattern among hundreds of thousands of Egyptian young people. And their elders have taken notice. Another phrase I heard repeatedly from Egyptians was "the young people taught us" that things can change.

Yes, the military will remain the pre-eminent power, even after parliamentary elections are held in August. But the military understands that Egyptians now expect a greater say in how they are ruled.

Meantime, many Egyptians and Westerners worry that the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, will do well at the polls and that the former ruling party, although recently banned, may re-emerge.

Yet Bahgat said bluntly: "The Ikhwan don't scare me." He said their past electoral strength -- 20 percent of the votes in the 2005 elections -- stemmed from the fact that they were the only opposition group. In the new Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will have plenty of competition. Activists hope to mobilize the 80 percent of the population who never voted because they thought their votes were irrelevant.

Yet even if the August elections disappoint and Egypt's economy fails to revive, Bahgat believes the situation can't return to the status quo ante.

There has been a fundamental transformation in Egyptian thinking, he said: Young people have "decided to be part of the solution. The guarantee against sliding back is to maintain the mobilization of this new generation."

I think he's on to something. The real Egyptian revolution -- which could become the model for the region -- will happen when people believe they can shape their lives after generations of fear and passivity. There are strong signs that revolution is at hand.

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