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The Tricky Business of Revolution

 28 February 2011

By Elliot Chodoff

Revolutions capture our imaginations and inspire us, but they make for tricky business. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s saying about war, people may know how to start one, but nobody knows how it will turn out. The uprisings in Egypt and Libya provide good cases in point. Lots of democratic fervor, aging dictators who have ruled by emergency regulations for three or four decades, and closed corrupt economic systems that benefitted close cronies of the regime provided the ingredients for textbook-style popular eruptions that have ignited the enthusiasm of the Western media. If we follow the enthusiastic reports coming out of Cairo, we are on the verge of a brave, new Egypt, and, with Tunisia down, the Libyan uprising boiling, along with Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, and who-knows-where-next, perhaps a new, free Middle East as well. If only it were so bright, clear, and simple.

Revolutionaries are romantically admirable characters, representing the weak and downtrodden against oppressive and self-serving regimes. They risk liberty, life, and limb to stand up for their rights and those of their fellow citizens, opposing leaders who often respond violently before being overthrown. Furthermore, many revolutions fail, with the would-be revolutionaries killed, jailed, or scattered and hiding for fear of reprisals. Failed revolutions are often followed by minor concessions and reforms, along with severe crackdowns on liberties by the regime’s security services.

Unfortunately, success brings its own problems, since it is far easier to tear down rotten, oppressive regime structures than it is to build new, clean, democratic ones. Moreover, the interim chaos provides sterling opportunities for those who wish to hijack the process and use it to their own benefit.

In the struggle for control of the new regime, organization skills and infrastructure, singularity of purpose, and willingness to use violence are premium assets. Thus a small, well organized, ideological movement has a significant advantage in the early competition. A charismatic leader, whether religious or merely ideological, may emerge from the wings, or preferably from exile, to guide the nascent “republic” along its path to freedom.

Sometimes, the new rulers co-opt the revolutionary naïfs and use them to ease their way to power, in the name of the people, freedom, and the revolution. Those who persist in opposition to the lofty goals of the new power-wielders are likely to be rounded up, incarcerated, and executed. Having succeeded in overthrowing the old regime, and imbued with their new sense of righteous empowerment, the freedom fighters are often surprised with the cynical brutality of the hard-line ideological opportunists who have gained power. By this pont, however, it will be too late to turn back.

The result, all too often, is a new regime that is at least as brutal as the old one, having replaced a traditional, corrupt system with an ideologically murderous one. We should keep in mind that the modern term “terror” may be traced to the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution that delivered as many as 40,000 victims to the guillotine in the name of equality, fraternity, and liberty.

All the uprisings are still in their early stages. In the meantime in Egypt, power has been transmitted from a dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to a military junta under Defense Minister Tantawi. This means that the revolution has not yet really occurred. Promises of a new constitution, free elections, and the lifting of 30-year old emergency regulations remain just promises. More important is the question of the military’s continued control over significant segments of the Egyptian economy.

The direction of the next phase of the uprisings will be determined by the ideologues, both foreign and domestic. Iran has made no secret of its interest in seeing Egypt and other states shift from secular, Western-allied powers that contribute to regional stability to ones that are ruled by Islamists and will align themselves with the Shi’ite Islamic Republic. The Muslim Brotherhood, touted in much of the Western media and by some US government analysts as a moderate, non-violent, social organization without a charismatic leader, has thrown its hat in the Egyptian ring. With the return from exile of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and his Friday address to the crowd in Tahrir Square, the Brotherhood has its charismatic leader. The Brotherhoods official, traditional motto, “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations,” should be sufficient to disabuse anyone of its true intentions and preferred methods. At the same time, it is not at all clear, Western hopes notwithstanding, that al Qaeda is forlornly standing by, watching the train of history leave the station without it on board (to paraphrase the NYTimes).

Will Egypt collapse into full revolution resulting in the emergence of a Brotherhood ruled Islamic republic? It is still too early to predict the next stage, and certainly the final stages, of the process that began with the demonstrations in Tahrir Square that sent Mubarak packing. But it would behoove us to watch the process closely, with an attitude considerably less sanguine than the near-cheerleading descriptions that have emerged in the news reports and commentary.