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How history might really be made in Egypt

Yes, the power of ideas such as freedom drives the protests in Egypt. But a surprise glitch might bring down Hosni Mubarak, as it did Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.

By Clayton Jones / January 31, 2011

A woman protests in Cairo Jan. 31.

Hannibal Hanschke/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

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Anyone watching the protests in Egypt might want to remember this old saw of history: For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost.

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Unexpected events often do suddenly create a surprise tipping point during a political or military struggle. It’s still unclear, for example, whether an American minuteman or a British soldier fired the first shot at the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775, launching the American War for Independence. And Richard Nixon might have served out his second term had a security guard at the Watergate Complex not noticed tape on the doors, left to leave them unlocked during a night burglary on June 17, 1972.

A similar serendipitous act may yet influence events in Egypt. An Army tank’s engine might backfire, for instance, setting off a riot. A statement from President Obama might be mistranslated into Arabic, forcing a mistake by Hosni Mubarak.

My own experience with one of history’s fluky moments occurred during the “people’s power” revolution against Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. I happened to witness the real reason that this long-time dictator was forced to flee.

Yes, the pressure was on him to leave. Thousands of Filipinos were in the streets during the four-day revolution, surrounding rebel soldiers in Camp Crame, a military base near Manila. Yes, everyone knew Marcos had rigged an election to claim victory over Corazon Aquino.

But Marcos might have been able to smash the resistance when he sent 700 Marines and seven tanks down a wide boulevard to take back the military base.

As a journalist, I happened to be walking down the boulevard, alone, when the tanks approached. “Where are you going? What do you plan to do?” I asked the Marines. No reply.

But then, I watched as the tanks suddenly turned down a smaller road, hoping to avoid the crowds and attack the rebels from a nearby base, Camp Aguinaldo.

Alas, their way was blocked by a Volkswagen Beetle, innocently parked along the road. Rather than merely roll over the empty car, the Marine commander, Gen. Artemio A. Tadiar Jr., ordered his men to move the bug to the curb.

That was a big mistake.

In the time it took the Marines to gather around the car, the crowds ran down the boulevard and surrounded them, chanting “join us, join us” (in the national language). The soldiers were forced to retreat into a nearby field.

After wisely assessing the situation, General Tadiar ordered a retreat. Marcos fled soon after, his kingdom lost for want of a driver to move that Beetle.

(A footnote to this little-known tale: The return of democracy to the Philippines in 1986 helped inspire other democratic revolutions in Asia – not all successful – and created a model for the people-power “color revolutions” in many of the post-Soviet-bloc nations. Meanwhile, the name of that VW owner is lost to history.)

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