Foreign Affairs

Whither Egypt?

Egypt’s revolution has overthrown Hosni Mubarak. What comes next? Much hope and little thought have gone into the answer. This seems always the case with revolution.

The inability to anticipate tomorrow correlates to our unwillingness to remember yesterday. If there is a lesson to be gleaned from Egypt at this early stage it is that nobody bothered to learn from past revolutions. This isn’t for lack of lessons. History offers thousands. Here are a few:

Lesson # 1789: Don’t judge a revolution by its slogans. The Jacobins spoke of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But, as Chamfort observed, this soon became “Be my brother or I’ll kill you.” Reading slogans and not seeing events, Americans an ocean away envisioned a revolution similar to their own. “The liberty of the whole earth was depending upon the issue of the contest,” Thomas Jefferson, a former U.S. minister to France, reflected, “and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?” Was ever so much foolishness compressed in so few words? Jefferson, who saw some of the events of 1789 firsthand, opined that “rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.” The revolutionaries agreed. Even wise men are idiots on their worst days.  

Lesson # 1917: Revolutions create dangerous power vacuums. Western optimists insisted that since the Muslim Brotherhood had little to do with the initial demonstrations in Egypt, they would have nothing to do with a new government. Anyone watching the Russian Revolution unfold might have said the same thing of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks didn’t overthrow the czar. Lenin was in Zurich; Trotsky, New York. They overthrew the people who overthrew the czar. When people rightly point out that the Muslim Brotherhood was late for the revolution, they wrongly assume that the protestors in the beginning become the government in the end. The Bolsheviks, who waited like vultures to feast on the withered state, proved otherwise. 

Lesson # 1979: The overthrowers are often worse than the overthrown. It is hard to imagine Westerners, let alone left-wing Westerners, seeing themselves in the Ayatollah Khomeini. But in the late 1970s, Michel Foucault, the Manchester Guardian, and The Nation were among those predicting great things from the Iranian Revolution. Mother Jones, for instance, embarrassingly foresaw “democratic reforms, freedom for political prisoners, an end to the astronomical waste of huge arms purchases, and a constitutional government” should the Ayatollah take power. When we see a ruffian, be it the Shah or Mubarak, we assume the righteousness of their adversaries. Alas, they’re usually just other ruffians.

Outside observers got France, Russia, and Iran wrong, horribly wrong. It’s possible that we got Egypt wrong, too, and for similar reasons.  We judged Egypt by placard platitudes. We ignored the danger of the void. We imagined that the enemy of an autocrat was necessarily a democrat rather than an extremist. In other words, we repeated the mistakes that past revolution watchers made.

The person who understands this best is the one affected by it most. “They may be talking about democracy but they don’t know what they’re talking about and the result will be extremism and radical Islam,” Hosni Mubarak said of the U.S. government. “We see the democracy the United States spearheaded in Iran and with Hamas, in Gaza, and that’s the fate of the Middle East.”

One hopes not. One thinks maybe. 

On the subject of upheavals of the state, there is no better guide than Reflections on the Revolution in France. Therein, Edmund Burke wrote that “it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purpose of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.” Egypt may again demonstrate Burke’s wisdom.

Sign Up