Violence, Revolution, and Lessons from Egypt

There’s a nasty undercurrent of triumphalism latent in much analysis of recent events in Egypt. When considering how the “Egyptian Revolution” seems to have gone awry in recent weeks, some commentators have lauded the experience of the American Revolution and proclaimed the importance of civil society. If only Egypt had the mature society America possessed in the 18th century, they seem to say, maybe there wouldn’t be a necessity of military control. It’s as if they read Tocqueville and assumed that he spoke timeless truths about the entirety of American history, rather than really thinking deeply about the process of winning Independence. (Then again, we already knew that about George Will, didn’t we?)

To pick up on a point I made in a previous post—if we push the timeline of the American Revolution side by side with the Arab Spring, then the federal Constitution would not be written until 2022. To look at America in 1778 is to look at a disorganized society, riven with tensions and, often, violent recrimination. It’s a nation in which two of the most important cities were under British occupation. When the British left Philadelphia in late 1778, they evacuated a city whose citizens looked at each other with deep mistrust, throwing out allegations of collaboration and gripped by heavily divisive treason trials. The summer of 1779 was marked with rising prices, threats of violence, extreme levels of coercion directed towards leading merchants, and ultimately culminated with the militia in the streets firing at James Wilson and other civic leaders. If you told Philadelphians in 1779 of the fruits of republican government, you could not have blamed them for finding them very bitter fruits indeed.

In other words, it was not at all clear that the American Revolution would result in a republican government. The one lesson that should come out of studying the Revolution is that achieving democracy is not easy. It was only possible in America through years of sustained effort, and no small amount of luck. Nor can it be said that this experience is atypical within democratic revolutions. We need only think of the Reign of Terror, or the horrors that awaited the Haitian Republic. Or, for that matter, almost any democratic revolution, successful or unsuccessful. Jefferson may have been indulging in romanticism when he stated that the tree of liberty must be refreshed by the blood of tyrants, but there was at least a grain of truth in what he said.

The myth of a bloodless revolution therefore strikes me as especially dangerous when considering modern-day movements for democratic government. A change in old regimes is necessarily a difficult, violent, contentious struggle. And that isn’t even the hardest part; that’s managing to forge a functional body politic out of disparate groups each possessing their own ideas about the new order. Those groups have to learn to trust each other. They have to agree to new rules by which to play politics. And they have to be able to accept defeat—to believe that even if they don’t get their way, their opponents still have the best interests of the country at heart. When the stakes are high and passions run higher, that’s a process that is often only resolved through the use of force. It’s why governments aren’t generally changed for light and transient causes, after all.

And that’s why excessive triumphalism in assessing the aftermath of the Arab Spring betrays an ignorance of American revolutionary history. The revolution that gave birth to the world’s primary superpower was an uneven, uncertain, and often unlikely process. There were many times at which things could have gone badly awry. It’s worth remembering that the success and failure of democratic regimes isn’t measured in terms of weeks, but in years (or even decades). America wasn’t pre-ordained for success; it succeeded in spite of many reasons it could have gone wrong. That’s something that the more triumphalist commentators would do well to remember.

2 responses

  1. I think it’s also important to note that America developed out of Britain’s long tradition of individual rights and democratic representation, whereas Egypt has been characterized by authoritarian or military rule for the past century.

  2. This post is spot on. One might add that our Constitution was concocted in secret by a group of men without popular sanction to write a constitution and that the document they produced divided the country. Moreover, years of sometimes violent unrest followed ratification, with the Shays, Fries and Whiskey Rebellions only the most dramatic outbursts of a much broader and more general backcountry discontent (see Ronald Formisano’s recent history of American populism on this point). And finally, the major unresolved tension of slavery led to civil war some eighty years later. Nor, I think, should we trumpet “Britain’s long tradition of individual rights and democratic representation,” which only applied to a propertied minority of the population–at least not before we know a lot more about Egypt’s traditions. After all, as the remarkable fortitude and persistence of the masses in Tahrir Square demonstrates, large parts of Egyptian society harbor a deep sense of the fundamental injustice of authoritarian rule.


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