Historically, Egypt’s revolution is more of the same
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