Denial on the Nile — February 7, 2011

The likely outcome of the Egyptian revolution was predicted nearly 75 years ago.  And if it comes to pass, it will not be good for the West.

Political scientist Crane Brinton wrote Anatomy of a Revolution in 1938.  In it, he traced common developments in four of history’s major political revolutions: the English Revolution of 1640’s, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution.  Each of these, he stated, followed to a greater or lesser extent the same pattern.  Watch closely and you will see how these patterns recurred not only in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, but also appear to be playing out in Tahrir Square.

Wikipedia has a good summary of the book, and Brinton himself provides the shorthand: a revolution moves from “financial breakdown, [to] organization of the discontented to remedy this breakdown … revolutionary demands on the part of these organized discontented, demands which if granted would mean the virtual abdication of those governing, attempted use of force by the government, its failure, and the attainment of power by the revolutionists. These revolutionists have hitherto been acting as an organized and nearly unanimous group, but with the attainment of power it is clear that they are not united. The group which dominates these first stages we call the moderates …. power passes by violent … methods from Right to Left.”

We do not have to rehearse the histories of all those revolutions to point out the similarities.  But a few critical inflection points are worth noting.  Generally, the ancien regime falls when the state’s instruments of force – the army or national police – refuse to exert their power against the revolutionists.  And that is happening in Egypt.  At the strong urging of Mubarak’s American patrons, the government pulled back the more violence-prone police force and brought in the army as a peacekeeper.  Far from trying to put down the revolution, at times it looked like they were its guardians.

The White House chose to support the protesters, partly in a well-meaning attempt to minimize bloodshed, and partly because we could hardly stand by an autocrat as he crushed a popular uprising and still claim to uphold America’s founding principles.  But in doing so, we helped usher this revolution along to its next stages.

The more critical and disturbing common thread is that the initial stages of the revolution are dominated by moderates who ultimately give way to the hard-core on the left.  This is principally because moderates tend to care more about re-establishing the state along democratic lines, whereas the extremists have an agenda that calls for root-and-branch upheaval.  Moreover, the extremists tend to be more organized, and, because they are more ideological, they are more ruthless.  Finally, moderates find themselves caught in the middle: on the one hand, they cannot ally themselves with the old power structure and on the other they are unwilling to make active conflict with their erstwhile allies (as in Alexander Kerensky’s “no enemies to the left” policy).

And so, a series of half-way revolutions – the English Commonwealth, the French National Assembly, the Russian Provisional Government, and Iran’s National Front gave way, respectively, to Cromwell’s Protectorate, Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, Lenin’s Soviet, and Khomeini’s Council of the Guardians: puritanical dictatorships, all.

And will Egypt’s post-Mubarak government follow the same path?  Mohamed elBaradei may seem to be the calm, mouselike face of the Tahrir protests, but will he eventually be overrun by the more determined ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood?  The Americans are doing what they can to influence a transition to a genuine democracy, with institutions and the rule of law, but that will only go so far if one of the participants has no intention of playing ball from the get-go.

Needless to say, if the Brotherhood does indeed take power, it will mean an arc of Islamists reaching from Iran in the East to Egypt in the West, including Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and – albeit more from opportunism than fidelity – Syria.  Then, imagine the dominoes start to shudder and fall – Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia (which fostered the Wahhabi fundamentalists in the first place).  And in the midst of all of them, little unloved Israel.  Time to read your Revelations again?

Is this inevitable?  The noteworthy exception in Brinton’s analysis is the United States – there was no Reign of Terror in 1776, and the moderates held sway without fracturing.  One might argue that it was enough of a unique circumstance that it should not have been included in the book (but then, of course, with only three examples it’s harder to make a strong case for the paradigm).  The colonists did not throw over an indigenous power structure, but a colonial power an ocean away; the forces of suppression did not refuse to enforce, they were defeated in a long war; and finally, the leaders that formed the government were all propertied gentlemen steeped in the philosophies of the Enlightenment – and we were exceptionally fortunate in the modesty exhibited by General Washington.

So that is no example to hope Egypt to follow.  The best bet to avoid the Brinton prescription is the long-term and active involvement of the army.  The military is one widely respected institution in the country, and the generals can provide a degree of stability to offset the ambitions of the ideological revolutionaries while shepherding in a more democratic, rule-following government.  It’s a knife-edge role to play, however, since it all too often occurs that the army decides it must at the end of the day assume power itself.

And that essentially is where Mubarak came from in the first place.


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