Another Revolution Betrayed

What happened in Tahrir Square was a revolutionary fairy tale. But there will be no fairy-tale ending in our time.

IT IS DIFFICULT to predict revolutions. George Rude, the leading left-wing historian of the French Revolution once wrote that an intelligent observer of the French scene, native or foreign, would hardly have predicted in 1787 the coming of the revolution despite a variety of straws in the wind. There was probably no closer student of France at the time than Arthur Young, the leading British expert on agriculture, who visited France three times for extended periods on the eve of the revolution. While he saw a number of things that were wrong with the country, he certainly did not realize that a great revolution was coming.

Not as unusual as one might think. In Russia, there was no more ardent a protagonist of the revolution than Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who had devoted his whole life to the cause. And yet Lenin, in a lecture in Bern in January 1917, was quite pessimistic about the prospects of the masses rising up, telling his audience that the great event might not even happen in his lifetime. But it did happen just one month later. And by the end of the year, his party, the Bolsheviks, had taken power.

In our age it seems to have become even more difficult to make these sorts of predictions, perhaps because there has not been a revolution for a long time. The term is bandied about rather freely and carelessly. When I was asked many years ago to prepare the entry “revolution” for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences there was broad agreement that a revolution was something sui generis; today it seems to have become a synonym for rebellion, coup d’etat, mutiny, uprising and half a dozen other forms of upheaval. All too often we forget a once generally-accepted principle: namely that a true revolution involves a number of preconditions.

First, there is the spark needed to trigger the uprising. In 1917 it was a strike in Petrograd; the revolution in Munich in 1848 broke out because an umbrella had fallen (or was thrown down) from the top seats of a theater and the public mistook the noise for a gunshot; in Brussels in 1830 the performance of a romantic opera (La Muette de Portici) in which the aria of Masaniello, a Napolitan fisherman, denounced the injustices which had been committed by the Spanish Habsburg rulers, led to the division between Belgium and Holland.

In the case of the Arab awakening of 2011, 46-year-old policewoman Fedia Hamdi struck Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian stallholder in a market, and in protest he burned himself alive (in the subsequent investigation it appeared that in fact Hamdi had not struck him—and she was acquitted). But there was enough tension and discontent within the country—and in particular with Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali—that had it not been for the unfortunate Bouazizi, some other incident might well have caused the overthrow of the regime.

Next, for a revolution to succeed, it needs a revolutionary movement capable of making use of it. And unless the party in power, the establishment, has been greatly weakened—lost its self-confidence and the popular support on which it rests—the revolutionary movement may still be defeated. Extreme and efficient dictatorships—such as that of Hitler or Stalin—leave no room for maneuver. Even in the case of Tsarist Russia it took a lost war (1904/5) and three years of heavy losses (close to two million killed) in another to bring about a revolution. Tocqueville observed that a dictatorial regime faces the greatest danger when it is trying to reform itself.

WHY, THEN, WERE Mubarak and Ali ousted so easily while other dictators are putting up a more determined resistance? Largely because they had stayed in power for too long and had become soft and lazy. That Mubarak’s regime was corrupt and a dictatorship is beyond doubt. But it was in all probability not the most corrupt, just a little bit worse than the Middle Eastern norm. Those who claim that Mubarak stole seventy billion dollars seem not to know the difference between a million and a billion; it would have made him the richest or the second richest man in the world. So far all that has been found is one apartment in London’s Knightsbridge; no doubt more accounts and properties will be discovered. True, those in power might have stolen a little more than customary, but probably less than Qaddafi. Egypt’s overall economic balance sheet these last few years had been quite positive (in contrast to that of Syria). True, not enough had trickled down and, above all, the rulers had not conveyed the impression that their states were moving forward. But the general climate of corruption in Egypt generated envy and hatred primarily because it lasted too long.

Mubarak’s dictatorship was not the most cruel and repressive, for if it had been it is unlikely that a book like The Yakoubian Building (and the movie based on it) could have been published, depicting quite realistically all the social ills besetting contemporary Egypt. It is also unlikely that a leading public intellectual like Tariq al-Bishri would have been able to publish his bitter attacks against the state.

These were old-fashioned authoritarian states without a populist ideology and without a well-oiled propaganda machine. Some have defined the Egyptian regime (and some others in the Middle East) as “Sultanist.” A term popularized by Max Weber, it connotes a despotic and unpredictable regime in which everything depends on one person, the ruler. But Mubarak’s sway was by no means unlimited nor was it unpredictable.

Under Gamal Abdul Nasser life in Egypt was far more repressive and many more people were jailed and killed. He ruined Egypt’s economy and suffered a crushing defeat in the war against Israel. Yet in this case, the prerequisites for a revolutionary situation were not in place. Many Egyptians admired him. Had he not brought dignity and pride to their country and enhanced its standing in the world? If he had not died from a disease, he might have ruled Egypt for many more years.

WHEN THESE LEADERS fell, the Western media joyously proclaimed the end of an era. When the demonstrations began in late January in Tahrir Square in Cairo, exhilaration grew by the hour not only among the participants but also among the journalists who had hastened to Egypt from all parts of the globe. Tahrir Square, they reported, was the most exhilarating place in the world, the atmosphere was intoxicating, uplifting, elating, entrancing, electrifying.

In the words of the poet (at the time of the French revolution) bliss was it to be alive. It was a sweet, peaceful and leaderless revolution, a million Egyptians or more were all brothers and sisters now. It was a show of incredible strength, it was an infectious source of inspiration. The alarmists had been proved dismally wrong, everything would be different in the future, a return to the bad old days was impossible. No one wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to take over and the few voices shouting Brotherhood slogans such as “Allahu Akbar” were quickly drowned out.

Who could stand aside when the young people of this old country, suddenly feeling a sense of pride, demanded freedom and dignity? It was truly amazing how this new generation had used the Internet, Facebook and Twitter to mobilize huge masses. Was it not the beginning of a new age, did the events of the Arab Spring (or Awakening or Revolution) not have worldwide historical implications? Were they not bound to affect many other countries suffering from repression? Was it not the beginning of a global revolution?

The heady spirit of the first days and weeks of Tahrir will no doubt find its chroniclers. It was the storm of the Bastille in the Arab world, the Gdansk moment, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

It was wonderful while it lasted.

EGYPT’S REVOLUTIONARY YOUTH became less happy as time went by. They wanted real change, not just the removal of the pharaoh, his sons and his clan. They were unhappy with the military, which quite obviously did not share their revolutionary enthusiasm, instead wanting above all to restore order and normalcy. They demanded that power not remain in the hands of the army—but to whose hands it should pass was not quite clear. The military was happy to oblige in the meantime; there would be elections in six months, not a day later. A committee was going to deal with minor changes in the constitution. And yet there were warning signs that not all was going to work out quite so well: There was not a single woman among the members of the committee and it was headed by Tariq al-Bishri, who had so vehemently and eloquently elucidated the problems with the Mubarak regime—formerly a Communist fellow traveler, now a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer. This meant that the famous second paragraph of the constitution concerning shari’a as the law of the land would certainly not be abolished (as liberals had demanded). Whether harshly or leniently enforced, this means no greater freedom for women and minorities—that is to say for 60 percent of the population.

Though the young revolutionaries had demanded free elections, the more farsighted among them very quickly realized that they had little public support, so free elections would not give them what they wanted. The Muslim Brotherhood would get about 40-45 percent of all parliamentary seats, and together with some smaller Islamist groups and Islamist “independents,” the liberals would certainly find themselves in the minority. And even if the Islamists failed to win, the Wafd, Egypt’s traditional nationalist secular party, announced that it would be happy to cooperate with the Brotherhood. The army, which could then maintain power in the background, would be perfectly content with such an outcome.

Slowly, the true state of affairs and the not-so-sanguine prospects began to dawn on foreign observers and commentators. Some had their misgivings from the beginning, remembering Foucault’s misguided enthusiasm about Khomeini and the Iranian revolution. But, they argued, Cairo was not Tehran—which is indeed undeniable. Articles began to appear arguing that revolutions are never easy, straightforward affairs, that there might be setbacks on the way to freedom and democracy, that Egypt faced serious social and economic problems. As life in Cairo returned to normal and demonstrators vacated Tahrir Square, press coverage turned summarily pessimistic: Had the revolution perhaps been defeated? The results of the interim elections seemed to point that way, for the great majority did not support the liberals and democrats. The revolutionaries and their well-wishers who had always been so enthusiastic about theirs being a leaderless movement seemed to ignore that never in history had such a leaderless movement succeeded. Great believers in the political power of modern technology, they disregarded the fact that while texts and tweets can promote democracy they can also teach how to make bombs.

The prospects in these countries remain bleak. Economically, states like Egypt, Syria and Yemen are riddled with poverty and plagued by rapidly increasing populations. Any sense that they will move in the direction of Turkey is greatly exaggerated. With so many educated young people unable to find jobs commensurate with their education, radicalization seems far more likely than democratization.

It was easy to be infected by the high spirits of the masses demonstrating in Tahrir Square in the early days. The Middle East, particularly the Arab world, has been for so long the problem child in world affairs, the source of endless worries, the focus of tensions and dangers to peace. Here at long last was the chance—nay, the certainty—that this part of the world had found its way out of backwardness and repression to greener pastures. Visions of a better world were irresistible: the bad guys defeated, the good guys triumphant. And all this without a single shot fired, simply by the enthusiasm of an idealistic young generation. It was a revolutionary fairy tale.

But there will be no fairy-tale ending in our time.