Opinion

The Great Debate

Historically, Egypt’s revolution is more of the same

By Jonathan Adelman
July 8, 2013

The history of revolutions tells us one sad fact: Egypt is in for a long period of violence, chaos and upheaval before it even begins to enter into the Promised Land of democracy.

Many Western politicians and commentators expressed surprise and even alarm over Egypt’s revolution, as the military ousted President Mohamed Mursi from power. Yet, examining the history of revolutions shows that these upheavals usually destroy more than they build – and, over the last 400 years, have rarely created durable democracies.

For a revolution to succeed and lead to democracy, five key factors are needed: A strong economic base to support democratic politics, an educated public, a supportive regional environment, tolerance for opposing ideas and an inspiring national leader. When a country does not possess all or most of these qualities, it is unlikely that a revolution can lead to long-term democracy.

Is current revolutionary failure in Egypt limited to the unique aspects of the Mursi regime or is it of broader consequence? The history of modern revolutions and the probable course of events in years to come offer an important guide to the future.

One big problem, many commentators now assert, is that Egypt has had two revolutions since 2011. However, multiple revolutions are historically the norm, not the exception.

Consider, the English Revolution of 1641-49 ultimately led to the successful Glorious Revolution in 1688. The French Revolution of 1789 was followed by revolutions in 1830, 1848 and 1871. The Russian Revolution of February 1917 was followed by the Bolshevik Revolution that October. The Chinese Revolution in 1911 was followed by 38 years of chaos, civil war, Japanese invasion and warlord rule until the 1949 Chinese Revolution brought the Communists to power.

And the road to democracy was difficult and complicated. The English Revolution of the 1640s, for example, did not create a viable democratic state until the Second Great Reform Act of 1863 gave the majority of males the vote. The 1789 French Revolution, of “liberte, egalite, fraternite,” did not create a viable democracy until the Third Republic in 1871. And then that happened only because the monarchist majority could not decide on which of three French dynasties — Bourbon, Bonapartist or Orleans — belonged in power.

The American Revolution of 1776, cited as the bastion of liberty, took many years to produce a strong democracy. The government first needed to evolve, as the Founding Fathers replaced the Articles of Confederation with a new Constitution in 1789. This limited democracy finally allowed nearly all white males the right to vote in 1828. Slavery remained until 1863, women had no vote until 1920 and most African-Americans in the South finally gained the franchise with the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

The great 20th century revolutions were even more autocratic. The 1917 Russian revolutions created a totalitarian Soviet Union that lasted until 1991. The 1911 Chinese Revolution led to the 1949 Chinese Revolution, which in 64 years has made limited progress towards democracy.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution led to a repressive Islamic Republic of Iran with a faux democracy.

Why don’t revolutions lead to democracy? They often break out in countries lacking the five key prerequisites for democracy.

Revolutions generally erupt in pre-industrial states in the early stages of economic development (England in the 1640s, France in 1789, China in 1911/1949, Russia in 1917). With the economic base in transition, these revolts were usually uprisings that had to recur before they took root. Which could be true for Egypt today.

The surrounding region has to be supportive. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, for example, freed the middle developed Eastern Bloc nations — including Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria — to integrate into the democratic European Union. But the former Soviet states in the Near Abroad without those attributes — Belarus, Ukraine and Central Asian Republics — remain autocratic.

Tolerance is also key, for without it opposition is seen as treason.

And finally great leaders — from George Washington to Nelson Mandela — matter.

The failed Egyptian Revolution lacked all the prerequisites for a democracy. Egypt is a poor state with a gross national product per capita of $2,500, barely 5 percent of the American level. It lacks a large educated middle class — more than 40 percent of women and 20 percent of men are illiterate. A stunning 88 percent of Egyptian households have no books, save those that children brought home from school. The Middle East is largely still composed of poor autocratic states — Libya, Sudan, Syria, Jordan.

Despite the fact that 8 million Christians live in Egypt, tolerance is in such short supply that a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life that 74 percent of Egyptian Muslims favor the establishment of sharia law.

As for leadership, Mursi has demonstrated that he is an inept politician — arrogant, politically tone-deaf, aggressive. He regularly violated the promises he made to the people.

Egypt’s recurrent revolutionary failures are not unique but reflect broader historical patterns from the long history of global revolutions. They are a sobering reminder of how difficult and protracted the struggle for democracy is — even in the 21st century.

 

PHOTO (Top): Fireworks explode over protesters who are against deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi holding Egypt flags and shouting slogans at Tahrir square in Cairo July 7, 2013.  REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

 PHOTO (Insert A): Print of Attack on the Hotel de Ville during Thermidor, on July 26, 1984  Wikimedia COmmons

PHOTO (Insert B): Photograph of portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale. REUTERS/Courtesy of Library of Congress

 

Comments
6 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

The prejudice and presumption present in this commentary are blatantly offensive and spectacularly wrong. The supposition that uneducated people cannot ignore uninspired neighbors to precipitate a progressive leadership from themselves is to deny the truth of what happened with our American revolution. At the time, Americans were largely uneducated. Few could read and write, and our neighbors were competing colonial monarchies, indigenous natives and fish.

The truth is that much less is required for a revolution to “succeed” than the abstract perfection toward which these United States still struggle to achieve. Any thinking person knows that America is still a “work in progress” for all prior sacrifice, effort and good intentions. The journey of a thousand miles still begins with a single step, and America’s was with it’s Declaration of Independence. That remains magnificent even today.

Egypt gained a measure of democracy with it’s first revolution. Unfortunately it was but an illusion inasmuch as the Islamists were the only organization capable of fielding viable candidates, which led to their ever-increasing domination of present and future political power.

Any revolution is an act of supreme frustration rejecting the status quo. A successful revolution takes it’s society beyond the fork in the road between tyranny and freedom. The challenge then becomes to sustain and nurture the “voice of the people” such that they may further define and reform their society into one politically and financially sustainable. This was the challenge that the original Egyptian revolution failed.

It failed because Egyptians did not trust their army enough to take the transitional time for political balance to come together as an alternate to the Muslim Brotherhood. They had ONE choice and it was a bad one. Those who say their rejection of the Islamists should have been immediate again expect perfect people who sit in front of a functional “oracle” that shows them the future. That was not and will never be reality.

I think it amazing that a majority of Egyptians have managed to come together in their outrage feom having their desire for greater freedoms hijacked by Islamists. The world has witnessed an unexpected miracle with the effective separation of Egypt’s Islamists from the reins of government without a huge bloodbath.

The only way forward for Islamists will be a return of absolute power to Mursi. Not gonna happen. Indeed, they likely will not agree to ANY “way forward” that forces genuine sharing of central power. In such context, why should “the people” who have requested and received the steadying hand of the army willingly yield significant power again to Islamists? “Fool me once…”.

The American Revolution of 1776 immediately achieved a stable “government of and by “the people” that has allowed America to be free and to progress from Articles of Confederation to a new Constitution in 1789 which remains our philosophical “guiding light”, fine tuned by progressive amendments and legislation to the present day. Good thing for Americans there were no smug academics back at the beginning saying it could not be done (that anyone listened to).

The perfect must not become the enemy or the executioner of the good from which everything originates.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

I should have pointed out that when America rebelled against the chains England placed upon the colonists, and sought to throw off those chains there was social upheaval and hostility between those satisfied as English subjects and those who would be free.

The fledgling country did NOT try to “include” those of primary loyalty to the English Crown. They effectively forced such potentially disruptive individuals out of American society in a very short period, with many fleeing to Canada.

This example might be a good one for Egypt’s revolution. Radical Islam must rule or ruin. Not a candidate for peaceful coexistence or “power sharing”. Look at Zimbabwe for how “power sharing” works out when an entrenched tyranny cannot be exiled from power.

Go, Egypt! Show your Arab brethren how democracy can provide a “way forward” and a better life.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

OneoftheSheep, you are really dillusional. The army is in charge there, and will remain so. The only way forward for Egypt would be if the army were to be slowly purged of the disgusting Mubarak era generals and officials and having them executed in public. Otherwise Egypt will remain a cespool of waste.

And dont forget, the Brotherhood has supporters, and it is far more than the 10-15% support that stupid Western analysts claim the brotherhood has. Let the brotherhood begin the protests!!!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive
 

@KyleDexter,

There is a time in extreme circumstance when the military traditionally steps forward, usually at the request of civilians. It’s called martial law. It’s on the books and occasionally used here in the good ol’ U.S.A.

As the one with the peculiar opinion, perhaps you should explain how you have a “dog in this fight” and why it is the Islamist dog?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

@OneofTheSheep, I can ask the same question from you? Why are you so concerned about the internal affairs of so many Muslim countries? I notice your comments. Completely pro-Isreal and Anti-Muslim. Are you an Isreali?

Or are you one of those white nuts that support pro-Isreali policies simply for the hatred you have of Musilms.

Face it, in these Muslim countries, Islam will always have a role. Just like in our own hypocritical ol’ U.S.A.

There is no problem for right wing nuts to run affairs here, believing that Gods only son will decend on America and purge the world of all non-believers, including Muslims.

It is because of people like you that whenever and wherever Americans go, we are hated. We are truely hated by most of the world, because of American arrogance.

I do belive that Washington gave the green light for Mursi’s removal. I dont mind too much either, because Sunni Islamists are one of the biggest threats to world peace, right after Isreal. However if you think anything good is gonna come from that disgusting military, the military that gave the world Sadat and Mubarak, think again.

Nothing has changed in Egypt, other than they are more poor…..

Expect more chaos to come!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive
 

@KyleDexter,

I will give your questions more respect than you gave mine and answer them in the order of proper significance. But first, your opinions:

“We are truely hated by most of the world, because of American arrogance.” No, Americans are hated primarily because most humans are ingrates. America emerged from WW II preeminent; and yet supported, both politically and financially the rebuilding of the ruins of Europe and Japan. Our very success and generosity made others jealous and envious.

Those whose societies remain in the shadows need no reason to envy and resenting America’s relative continuing bounty and Americans. Hatred consumes the very soul and worth of those in whom it finds welcome. I don’t believe Egypt’s military so stupid as to not realize that they would eventually have to clean up the mess Mursi was making of Egypt. Better sooner than later.

Something good has already come of it. Mursi is no longer in charge. Since experience with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Palistan the Arab “street” has has it’s flirtation with “democratic” sharia leadership. Turkey and Egypt have shown that sharia law and the teachings and goals of radical Islam are utterly incompatible with any nation’s becoming a functioning, contributing and responsible part of the modern world.

Yes, there will be more chaos. But try to put this in proper perspective. The world today is more peaceful and the number dying day in and day out lower than at almost any time in history. Man remains a “work in progress”, some good, some bad. But the standard of living world wide has never been higher. That alone is good reason for those dissatisfied to sit down, shut up and see how they can contribute to it’s continued rise.

For the record, I do not believe in ANY superior being. That is why I urge “common sense” as I see it…to improve life here on Earth. Truly incredible investments of individual time and money in idols and false prophets over the last two thousand years plus have produced absolutely ZERO progress if measured in terms of man learning to get along with man.

I am concerned about the internal affairs of Muslim countries because these are today among the most backward and most aggressively vicious of societies. They think individuals who can read and recite the Koran educated, and make no secret of their intent to eventually dominate the world. That would be funny if not so tragic.

The only resources apparent in the middle east are oil and hate, and modern societies are learning to do with less and less of each. If Islamists will not learn to co-exist with the rest of the world, advanced societies will have no choice but to “put them down” like any other mad dog. Civil society must protect against the uncivil.

I am not Jewish by faith or blood, but I admire the Israelis. They have relocated into one of the most sterile, hostile landscapes and climates on this earth and literally made the desert bloom, physically, intellectually and financially.

Some are not the easiest people to know or associate with, being frank to the point of being obnoxious on occasion; but that can be true of any people. I do believe they make this world a better place, and consider them a neighbor worthy of my defense.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

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