Why We Can’t Rule Out an Egyptian Reign of Terror

A historian's look at revolution and its discontents.


There are, of course, many different ways of categorizing historical revolutions. But for the purposes of understanding what is happening in Egypt — and the challenges it may pose for the United States — one simple, rough distinction may be especially useful. This is the distinction between revolutions that look more like 1688 and revolutions that look more like 1789. The first date refers to England’s "Glorious Revolution," in which the Catholic, would-be absolute monarch James II was overthrown and replaced by the Protestant William and Mary and the English Parliament claimed powerful and enduring new forms of authority. The second is, of course, the date of the French Revolution, which began as an attempt to create a constitutional monarchy but ultimately led to the execution of King Louis XVI, the proclamation of the First French Republic, and the Reign of Terror.

A key feature of 1688-type revolutions is their relative brevity. They may be preceded by lengthy periods of discontent, agitation, protest, and even violence, but the revolutionary moment itself generally lasts for only a few months (as in 1688 itself), or even weeks or days. A regime reaches a point of crisis and falls. The consolidation of a new regime itself may well involve much more turmoil and bloodshed, and eventually entail considerable political and social change — but these later events are not considered part of the revolution itself, and there is no sense of an ongoing revolutionary process. Men and women do not define themselves as active "revolutionaries" (in 1688, in fact, the English noun and adjective "revolutionary" did not yet exist — it only came into frequent use after 1789).

Revolutions of the 1789 type are quite different. Their leaders and supporters see regime change as only the beginning of an arduous, ambitious process of political, social, and cultural transformation that may require years, even decades, to complete. For them, the revolution is not a discrete event, but an ongoing cause. They eagerly define themselves as "revolutionaries" and even speak of the "permanent revolution." Revolutions of this type generally have much stronger utopian tendencies than the others and more frequently lead to large-scale violence. They also tend to have ambitions that overflow national boundaries — the local revolution becomes seen as just part of a process of worldwide emancipation. In some cases, revolutions of this type may be driven from the start by a self-consciously revolutionary party, committed to radical upheaval. In other cases (such as 1789 itself), it may seem to start off as a more limited event, only to change its character as particular groups grow frustrated with the results and the opposition they have encountered, and conclude that far broader, deeper forms of change are called for.

Historically, 1688-type revolutions have been much more common: France in 1830, Germany in 1918, China in 1911-12, and many of the revolutions of 1848 (of which most ended in failure). 1789-type revolutions, by contrast, have been relative historical rarities: above all, 1789 itself, Russia in 1917, China in 1949, Cuba in 1959. They are not, however, necessarily revolutions of the left. One could also include in this category the Nazi seizure of power in Germany (which Hitler termed a "National Revolution") and Iran in 1979. The American Revolution, it could be argued, represents something of a hybrid case — closer to 1688, yet with important features of the other type, thanks to the long process of consolidation and contestation that followed independence.

In recent years, it seems as if the 1789 type of revolution has lost its appeal for most of the world. During the greatest series of political upheavals in recent times — the collapse of communism — most leaders of the victorious reform movements rejected the word "revolution" altogether. The Polish Solidarity leader Jacek Kuron went so far as to write in the summer of 1989, apropos of the French Revolution’s bicentennial, that Poland did not want a revolution because revolutions spill too much blood. Germans refer to the events of 1989 as the "Turning," not the "Revolution." It was, above all, in Czechoslovakia that the word "revolution" came to describe what happened in 1989, but paired with the word "velvet" to underscore the differences from the great revolutions of the past.

Of course, revolutions have hardly disappeared since 1989. But the recent wave of them across the world — the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the recent events in Tunisia — all look much more like 1688 than 1789. They have been short, sharp affairs, centered on the fall of a regime. In none of these countries have we seen the development of an extended "revolutionary" process or party. And though some of these revolutions have triggered others, domino-style, as in 1848, they have not themselves been expansionary and proselytizing. As far as I know, there are no Tunisian revolutionaries directing events in Cairo.

The principal exception to the current pattern — the one great contemporary revolution of the second type to remain an ongoing proposition today — is Iran. Although it has been more than 30 years since the fall of the Shah, Iran’s Islamic Republic is still a revolutionary regime in a way matched by few other states in the world today. Despite its considerable unpopularity with its own people, it has remained committed since 1979 to the enactment of radical, even utopian change, and not just inside its own borders. Organizations such as the Revolutionary Guard retain considerable importance.

Egypt, interestingly enough, experienced a revolution close to the 1789 type in its relatively recent history. The so-called Revolution of 1952 that overthrew the country’s monarchy and brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power ultimately involved a great deal more than regime change. Nasser had broad ambitions both for remaking Egyptian society and for taking his revolutionary movement beyond Egypt’s own borders (most strikingly, in the creation of the short-lived United Arab Republic). Ironically, Hosni Mubarak spent much of his military career in the service of Nasser’s revolutionary regime. But well before Mubarak came to power, following the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, Egypt’s revolutionary energies had largely dissipated.

The fundamental question being discussed by commentators at present is what shape a new Egyptian revolution might take, if Mubarak’s regime falls and the military does not intervene. Will it come to a quick end with the establishment of a new government — hopefully a democratic one — or will a much more radical, long-lasting revolutionary process develop? In other words, will things look more like 1688 or 1789? Anxieties focus not on a resurgent Nasserism, of course, but rather on the Muslim Brotherhood and the possibility that Egypt may experience its own Islamic revolution, with unpredictable consequences, not only for the country itself but for the region and the world.

Against these anxieties, many commentators have been pointing to the lack of ingredients, at present, for such a turn of events. Cairo in 2011, they insist, is not Tehran in 1979. They argue that the crowds protesting Mubarak have called above all for democracy and expressed little enthusiasm for an Islamic Republic. They characterize the Muslim Brotherhood, despite its long and radical history, as a relatively ineffective organization that has recently moved in more moderate directions and that lacks a charismatic leader like Ayatollah Khomeini. In short, they are effectively arguing, the signs point to 1688, not to 1789.

This analysis may well be accurate. But the history of revolutions suggests that even if it is, the long-term outlook in Egypt is still a highly unstable one. This is not only because the furious events of the last two weeks are hard to predict, but because revolutions of the 1789 type do not always start out as such. Hardly anyone at the start of the French Revolution could have predicted the demise of the French monarchy and the Reign of Terror. There were no Jacobins present at the fall of the Bastille in 1789, only future Jacobins. France’s turn to radicalism took place after the Bastille had been taken, within the revolutionary process itself — between 1789 and 1793. Similarly, Russia’s February Revolution of 1917 initially looked to most observers like 1688: a short, sharp crisis that led to the fall of a monarch, and the quick foundation of a constitutional regime. While Bolsheviks were already present, few observers foresaw the October Revolution that would bring Lenin to power.

Egypt probably does not face the prospect of an Islamic Revolution in the next few months. But if Mubarak falls and is replaced by a weak, unstable series of governments that cannot restore order or deliver serious social and economic reforms — and thus quickly lose credibility and legitimacy among the population — then a different, far more radical revolutionary movement may yet develop. And despite the current lack of a charismatic leader for such a movement, one could quickly emerge out of the torrent of events. In July 1789, Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton were unknown lawyers; Jean-Paul Marat an unknown doctor, known to most of his acquaintances as something of a crackpot. Within four years, they had emerged as leaders of the most radical revolution yet seen in history.

So the crucial point to keep in mind, as events in Egypt unfold, is that even in the best-case scenario — Mubarak falls without further violence and is replaced by a seemingly stable, democratic, secular government — the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 may still just be getting started. Its crucial moments may lie months, or even years, in the future. It is after Mubarak’s fall that American support for Egypt’s democratic forces will be most important. And the last thing anyone should do, if Egypt appears to complete a revolution this year that looks like 1688, is to breathe a sigh of relief. At the end of 2011, Mohamed ElBaradei may well be president of a democratic Egypt. But then, at the end of 1789, Louis XVI was still King of France.

David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus professor in the Department of History at Princeton University, and, in 2018 to 2019, the John and Constance Birkelund Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

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