The Middle East Channel

Why we can’t rule out an Egyptian reign of terror

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 ...

Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Bibliotheque Nationale de France

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).

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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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