by Waller R. Newell

Since the French Revolution in 1789, revolutions have shown common features that are directly relevant to what is happening in Egypt right now. Since the final outcome in Egypt after Mubarak's ouster -- a new regime -- may be weeks, even months or years, away, it is worth pausing to take the long view.

In general, the initial reformist phase of such revolutions focusing on individual rights and opportunity is swept aside by radicals who want an egalitarian and collectivist political order. Thus, liberal reformers like Lafayette and Mirabeau inspired by the American Revolution with its emphasis on individual liberty were followed by true collectivists like Marat and Robespierre. In the same manner, Kerensky was followed by Lenin; BaniSadr (if not exactly a liberal, a technocrat bent on secular modernization) by Khomeini.

The second, truly revolutionary phase is usually preceded by the delusion on the part of the liberal reformers that they can form a partnership with the radicals, harnessing their populist energy to help bring about the transition to free elections, economic modernization and individual rights. The radicals, for their part, always look on these alliances as purely tactical, to be overturned when the time was right to take over. We can predict a similar outcome for Mohommad El Baradei's and other reformers' opening to the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders.

Another consistent feature is that revolutions take place, not in the most repressive of tyrannies, but more typically in despotisms whose grip is already loosening, and where both a degree of economic prosperity and liberalization are already taking place. The administration of Louis XVI was the most liberal and reformist ever known in France; it attempted to introduce a free market system and break the economic hold of the aristocracy over the masses. Similarly, Tsar Nicholas II alternated between harsh repression and encouraging the Duma to share power with the crown; during his reign, the Russian economy was one of the fastest growing in Europe, reaching levels in agricultural production that Nikita Krushchev conceded in 1956 had still not been equaled.

In the case of Egypt under Mubarak, the outbreak against his rule was preceded by a period in which modest progress was being made in Egypt's economic prospects and standard of living, due to a small amount of oil, a lot of tourism, and increasing foreign investment. This year the economy grew by a robust 6%. Ditto in Iran, where the Shah was committed to political and economic Westernization and secularization. Ditto in Russia, where Gorbachev's toppling of the Soviet regime was preceded by the Brezhnev era in which Russians were finally tasting some solid economic benefits.

Common to these cases is Toqueville's thesis of the revolution of rising expectations. Fitful and semi-effective autocratic reformers whet people's hopes for a better future, but cannot satisfy the expectations they arouse. Their own semi-effective reforms unleash the forces that overthrow them. Then the liberal reform regime is in turn swept away by the true revolutionaries, who do not want a liberal "bourgeois" revolution like the American revolution, but want to revoke both traditional authority and the half-completed modernization in favor of a populist collective.

During the flash point that signals the downfall of the autocrat, there is often a moment of truth when it becomes clear that the autocrat's own allies, especially the military, will not take the extreme measures necessary to crush the revolt, and tell the autocrat they will not fire on the people. This happened with Louis XVI, the Tsar and the Shah. In the case of Gorbachev, he himself refused to use the Soviet military and security services to halt the out-of-control pace of his own reforms. And now Mubarak, whose generals told him the same thing, finally easing him out. In contrast, determined tyrannies like the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin will methodically kill tens of thousands of people until rebellion is crushed (for example., the Kronstadt rebellion). Currently, Syria exudes the silence of the grave as popular uprisings flair nearby, a sign of how grimly effective its tyranny is. And, since there is no television footage, no one calls for the demise of this far more lethal regime.

Finally, most revolutionary (as opposed to reformist) regimes embark on an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy. The reason is that, inevitably, it is impossible for them to fulfill their people's desires for a better life, both because the transformation will take too long and because they are actually hostile to liberal reforms. There is also a genuine ideological fervor to spread the ideal of the collective to other peoples. They harness popular energy and turn it outward, whipping up the notion that they are surrounded by enemies bent on their destruction. This happened with the French Revolution, with National Socialism and with the Bolsheviks, and more recently with Iranian leader Ahmadinejad's professed belief that the U.S. and Israel are constantly plotting Iran's destruction, and that their destruction will bring utopia to the entire world.

Most of these features have been present in the current upheaval in Egypt. The initial, liberal revolution was sparked by people, especially educated young people, who had tasted a bit of economic and political modernization, but found that the regime could not deliver. As a rather shambling Mafia-style state, Mubarak's Egypt was a relatively open society, awash in Western entertainment and commercialism, where only political dissent was treated ruthlessly. Like pre-revolutionary France, Russia, Weimar and the Shah's Iran, it was a "wide open" society in the cities; Cairo is often called the New York City of the middle east. It thus encouraged the young to believe that a better life was coming, but constantly frustrated that hope. As for the new military rulers, chances are slim that any government brokered by them will satisfy the protesters - these men are among the departed Mubarak's richest cronies and kleptocrats.

Should El Baradei (himself no friend of the U.S. and quite hostile to Israel) manage to lead the reformers in a coalition, he will be the transitional liberal figure, the parallel of Mirabeau, Kerensky or BaniSadr. For the Muslim Brotherhood are waiting in the wings, bent on creating an Islamist collective ruled by the extreme version of Sharia law, an imitation of the Iranian theocracy. And, already, quite predictably, they are beginning to say that their new Egypt will pursue an aggressively anti-Western, and above all anti-Israel policy, making common cause with their revolutionary partners in Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

A senior member of the Brotherhood has already announced that their aim will be to "prepare the Egyptian people for war with Israel" and called for the Suez Canal to be closed so as to disrupt the West's oil trade. Another announced that a newly elected legislature's first duty will be to re-consider the peace treaty with Israel. As a matter of course, as soon as they can, the Brotherhood will terminate Egypt's tourist industry, one of its chief sources of income and an employer of many of the people demonstrating in Cairo today, because they regard tourists as a foreign taint and their interest in ancient ruins as promoting paganism. As Islamist revolutionaries, whatever more palatable image they may choose to present for now, they do not have the slightest interest in raising the Egyptian people's standard of living, because they detest liberal individualism and economic freedom.

As for the many commentators who observe that they have not yet asserted a leading role over the demonstrators, proving that the opposition is "broad-based," why would that surprise anyone after a mere three weeks? Five years elapsed between the opening of the French Revolution and the Terror of 1793. It took two years for Bani Sadr to go from being the president of the new Iranian Republic to being impeached by the Khomeinists and driven from the country. There was an interval of seven months between the beginning of the Russian Revolution with Kerensky's provisional government and the Bolshevik coup d'etat bringing Lenin to power. I find it striking that some leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are tipping their hand so early about their plans for when they come to power. It shows either foolhardy optimism or a sure sense of their grip on events.

I predict that, within a few months of a transitional reformist regime taking over, headed by a coalition of largely secular reformists, we will see enormous demonstrations in the streets by followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, far better organized and militant than the ones that drove out Mubarak, a sea of banners shouting for the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of all American and western influence. Let's make good and certain we know what we're wishing for in Egypt. Authoritarian regimes can transition to liberal democracy, but it is an infinitely complex and potentially dangerous process.


Waller R. Newell is professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He's currently writing a book for Cambridge University Press on the differences between ancient and modern tyranny. This article appeared February 11, 2011 in Jewish World Review

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