Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Egypt and the Revolution

Professor Walter R. Newell examines the patterns of past revolutions as exemplified specifically by the French and Russian Revolutions. He points out that Revolutions usually occur when conditions are improving and makes some predictions about what will happen next in Egypt. To quote:
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 Mulsim 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 semieffective 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....

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.

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