The Upredictability of Revolutions

Can the Repercussions of the Egyptian Coup be Contained?

(July 5) The Egyptian military knows it requires special skills to defuse a bomb. One mistake can cause an explosion. The question is whether they understand that Egypt is a political time bomb requiring the same finesse.

The first explosions in Egypt came Monday night, July 8. Fifty people were killed and nearly 400 wounded by soldiers. This convinced  the most conservative Islamist party Nour, which gave the revolution religious cover, to suspend its participation in the interim government. Often violent events such as these have marked turning points in revolutions, where attitudes hardened and compromise became impossible.

The Egyptian military has acted as if the removal of a duly elected government is a routine event. It is anything but. This is Egypt’s first elected government. Despite its failings, it has the legitimacy of that election. Even if you accept the military’s version that this is a revolution with broad support, not a coup, questions remain whether the military underestimates the seriousness of their actions and whether it can contain events.

The explosive in Egypt is the enormous emotional tension in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood has been suppressed for over 60 years. Members have been arrested and tortured since the 1950’s – the organization banned. The pent up emotion among its members, who were craving becoming the legitimate heir to real authority, cannot be calculated.

It is true that factionalism is a problem in much of the world. However, calling the Brotherhood a faction strains the meaning of the term. Its support in the last election exceeded 50 percent, large enough to win the presidency. Now, leaders of the Brotherhood now are calling for an uprising against a “fascist coup government.” The discontent of the Brotherhood is more than an inconvenience.

Morsi was duly elected; there was no specific legal rule he broke, and his removal was not sanctioned by any legal process. The military and the people in the street can portray this as a revolution, but that won’t mean a thing to Morsi partisans and the Brotherhood. To them it is a coup and they were wronged.

The Morsi government was clearly running into problems – many of them self-inflicted. Morsi  poisoned the well in the fall when he decreed new powers for himself. He compounded that when he allowed liberal and Christian members of the Constitution writing body to walk out, rushed the vote on the new constitution, and on top of that acted as if he wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t compromise and harbored a hidden agenda.

That did not mean he was doomed. Faltering revolutions are nothing new. The American Revolution sputtered at first. The original constitution, the Articles of Confederation was found unworkable. Fixing it may have been heated at times, but the military did not intervene and order a new solution. Imagine the outrage if it had? One of the many exceptional parts of the American Revolution was this revamping of the entire government was consensual – historically an unusual achievement.

The process in Egypt is not consensual and as a result: the political heat in Egypt is rising.

The concern in Egypt and the world should be that the situation does not get out of control. History points out that often the course of revolutions does not run smooth. The English, French and Russian revolutions are, admittedly, the worst examples. All took dramatically different and sometimes violent turns after the first reasonable centrist victories. They all seemed under control at first, making seeming progress to tackle the problems of the time. However, in England hardened positions lead to civil war, killing of the king and twenty years of turmoil. In France, a seemingly workable reform constitution fell apart and lead to the Reign of Terror. In Russia, moderates who first took power from the Czar were overthrown later by the Bolsheviks – resulting in 70 years of Communism.

Right now Egypt needs a deft touch. An explosion in Egypt has wider consequences than anyone wants to imagine. How much turmoil can the Middle East stand before it starts to spill over to the rest of the world.

None of this means that the Egyptians cannot navigate through these difficulties. It only means that they must use extreme caution. Messages from the White House and other countries about the need for compromise and non-violence can be dismissed as platitudes. However they are the exact messages that  need to be delivered with both force and urgency. The U.S and others need to impress on the Egyptian military that an effort to lower the temperature and bring everyone in to the process is the only option. The situation in Syria should be a cautionary tale of what happens when this isn’t done.

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