The recent terrible events in Egypt has had me wondering what history (or my understanding of it at least) can teach us as to what is going on, and to where it is headed.
First, revolutions are messy and often long-drawn out affairs. The French Revolution kicked off around 1790 and pretty much ended upon Napoleon's defeat in 1815. In that period, it spread from Paris and at its height, saw French troops occupying Moscow. At its end, France, and indeed Europe was forever changed but not in the manner foreseen by their protagonists. The Russian revolution pretty much ran for 5 years (1917-22). The collapse of the Eastern Bloc in a frenzy of shouts declaring the victory of capitalism (Francis Fukuyama's now infamous 'end of history') did not bring forth milk and honey to their citizens overnight-indeed, many are now living in economic conditions worse, or certainly not much better than that in the dying years of authoritarian government.
Second, revolutions are rarely controllable in the hands of their protagonists. Gorbachev wanted reform (perestroika), and saw the collapse of the Soviet Union instead. Robespierre dreamed of creating a country of active, virtuous citizens and France ended up with mass executions, and an imperialist, self appointed emperor called Napoleon Bonaparte (Robespierre himself ended up executed). The Protestants who threw the Catholic apparatchiks out of the window in Prague (the famous Defenestration of Prague in 1618) surely had no idea they just started the Thirty Years War which ended up with so many religious deaths and social dislocation of a great scale and an end to Catholic supremacy in continental Europe (though the end result was what they wanted, they probably did not even dare dream it possible). Marinus van der Lubbe, a young Dutch communist set the Reichstag on fire, probably to start a communist uprising, ended up giving Hitler a pretense to declare an emergency and suspend parliament. The Nazi dictatorship was born instead. Tarek Bouazizi, the young man who set himself on fire to protest his feeling of helplessness at the face of a bleak future, set the tinder for the now proclaimed Arab Spring-who knows what he would have thought of all the dead civilians in Egypt and Syria, not to mention Bahrain (though he surely did not dream his act would lead forth to such significant change)?
Third, successful political revolutions almost certainly require a degenerative, rotting system that simply needs to be pushed to collapse, such is the weakness of its foundations. This narrative is often missing, replaced instead by the dashing, brave if foolhardy leadership of men (always men) of bravado and indefatigable belief in their righteousness such as Robespierre, Lenin, Castro and Guevara. But would they have succeeded in the face of a powerful state apparatus? All of them faced a weakened government. Louis XVI led a bankrupt state that could not feed its people; Tsar Nicholas II was head of an increasingly bankrupt empire bleeding to death on the Eastern Front in WW1. Castro faced a right-wing dictator in Batista, much reviled by Cubans. The Ayatollah Khomeini's arch-nemesis the Shah of Iran, Pahlevi, was universally hated by Iranians. Successful governments would not face revolutions for obvious reasons, but even unsuccessful ones can fend them off should they maintain a modicum of control; prime upon these the ability to divide the opposition. It is when they fail to do this, coupled with decisive leadership from the opposition that they tend to collapse. Louis XVI was hated by the middle class and the poor together. He managed, almost inconceivably to unite the hungry, the greedy (mercantile class), the ideologues (i.e. the Jacobins and Girondins). All he had to do was take one group out of the equation but he was too blind or incapable of doing even that. Lenin seized power with the aid of not just the far left Blosheviks, but also the Mensheviks, other social democrats and even the middle class, such was their hatred of the Tsar that they put their own enmities aside. The Iranian Revolution was hardly Islamic on its own-it was led by the ayatollah no doubt, but many on the ground were also communists, socialists, reformers and the young wishing for a more democratic future. The Shah was also incapable of dividing this group such that we ended up with the Islamists working together with the atheist communists in concert against a common enemy.
We see all three in Egypt today, though true to form with the rest of the Arab Spring, we are missing the dashing hero of the revolution. This is indeed unusual. Even the collapse of the Eastern Bloc had indirect heroes in the shape of Kohl, Havel, Walesa, Reagan, Thatcher and the buffoonery accidental heroes of Gorbachev and the truly helpless Egon Krenz, the butt of all jokes. But who are the Arab Spring direct or indirect heroes? For a culture full of strongmen over the centuries, this is quite an unexpected turn of events. The hero could indeed be the greatest grandmaster of all-social media. But as I noted earlier, what is more important is degenerative authority.
The collapse of the Mubarak regime led forth to the unraveling of the temporary alliance between competing forces-the liberal middle-classes, the leaderless working class, the well organised Islamists, the opportunists military jumping out of a sinking ship and the Coptic Christians hoping hard to be protected by the new government. For a moment they were uniting by a common hatred and a common enemy. But they fought for their own reasons. Now that the bastard is gone, swords are drawn at 20 paces.
There is a vacuum in place. The revolution's first phase of deposing a corrupt degenerative system has succeeded. But who will take over power? Who's revolution is it?
Robespierre destroyed anyone with even a modicum of an alternate view-the revolution was his, and he fully utilised the arch-propagandist Jean-Paul Marat with his vitriolic, hate filled publication 'Friend of the People'. Basically (for Malaysian readers), this was Awang Selamat writing in Utusan Malaysia. The many views of the revolution could not be accommodated-only one view could be. Lenin also proceeded to turn on his allies, though to be fair they were also turning on him. He was simply put, the winner, though it is clear that he was never ever going to share power with those not of of his worldview. The Islamists in Iran destroyed the communists, socialists and progressives. The Iranian Revolution became instead the Islamic Revolution.
Today's revolutionary is tomorrow's counter-revolutionary, just as today's counter-revolutionary is tomorrow's revolutionary. These become meaningless terms. You are on the right side of history only if you win. To hell with right and wrong. The winner of Egypt's revolution will be the one that plays its cards best. Realpolitik will dictate its victor. The Arab Spring is done-it was merely an early stage in the remaking of the Arab world. hopefully what we end up with is better than what was there previously, but all the good intentions in the world will not make it so. How will this all pan out?
I am particularly intrigued by the thinking of the military. Top military leaders are students of history, such is the importance of studying past battles. The Iranian (Islamic) Revolution will not have passed them by. Islamists with no history of democratic participation have shown little willingness to accommodate it, unlike Islamists in other countries who have been allowed to participate in democratic processes (e.g. Turkey, Lebanon, Malaysia, Indonesia). Having been excluded from participating in society they are only too willing to return the favour. Accommodation with other groups is only temporary; accommodation with democracy, a la Lenin and Hitler is a matter of necessity. The actions of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt must have been viewed with some alarm at military HQ. The sweeping aside of its temporary allies was one thing, but the forced resignation of Tantawi was another. The mass protests against Morsi by his previous liberal, middle-class allies and the disaffected working class was instrumental in giving them a raison d'etre to act in defense of the revolution. Again, who's revolution?
To the Islamists, they mistrust the military, such was its oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood for decades. They distrust the liberal middle-class. Would they have gone the way of the AK in Turkey and become a moderate Islamic party, or like PAS in Malaysia (less secular, more Islamic but respectors of a pluralist system nonetheless) had they been given a chance? Or did they plan to do things a la Ayatollah Khomeini, destroy their temporary allies and impose their will on the country? Fact is, we will never know. They were never given the chance to prove themselves (though some will say they had plenty of time already, but is 1 year enough?).
The middle-class are natural prevaricators. They go with those who can maintain what is important to them. Stability is important to the petite bourgeoisie, in order to maintain their assets and lifestyles. The Murabak regime had increasingly been incapable of maintaining their standard of living. He had to go. They certainly are no supporters of Morsi but surely had he been able to stabilise the economy and left them alone to run their businesses and provide opportunities for their social activities they would not have acted against him. But he was as much a threat to their lifestyle as Mubarak had been proving to be.
The working class want their bread (literally). Whoever can give them food and jobs have their support. Mubarak failed. His economic reforms failed because of the endemic corruption within the system. Morsi failed, as most Islamists do with Economics. It simply isn't a priority for them (the ayatollah complained bitterly of how housewife's in Iran were going on about the price of fruits after the revolution. 'We did not have a revolution so they can complain about the price of fruits!'). If the next mob fails, do not be surprised to see a worker's revolution. After all, they are the ones with the real power. Pity they do not know or realise this, divided as they are among the Islamists, liberals, unemployed, professionals, rural placed etc....
Lastly, the rural-urban divide should not be under-estimated (as Malaysians are learning....). Popular revolutions tend to be urban led. The French Revolution really should be called the Paris Revolution for example. St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad and Moscow sowed the seeds of the Russian Revolution. Military revolutions (Cuba, China) can eschew that, but popular revolutions are urban revolutions. But they still have to persuade the rural people to support them. In the USSR Stalin simply had millions of them starve to death. In France, the rural areas had to be subdued. In Egypt, these are strongholds of the Brotherhood. The press and media are naturally urbanly biased-we always read and write about city concerns. But what goes on in the countryside seems to be neglected. Lenin recognised the power of the proletariat was limited when faced with large rural populations-he knew the revolution, if it failed to be exported to the industrialised West would fail such was the miniscule size of the Russian working class, and so it proved. Popular urban revolution is an agent of change-but in countries where the rural sector is still powerful that alone is not enough. You can breed a successful one in Hong Kong or Singapore, but in Egypt?
In Egypt, we witness many opposing claims. To the Islamists, it was their revolution and the protestors are counter-revolutionaries. And vice-versa. As they fight each other, the only true counter-revolutionary, the Egyptian military is back in power no thanks to the idiocy of liberal and Islamic leaders. While they squabbled for power they left the gate unlocked for the evil bastard to return. For Mubarak was not the man in power-the revolutionaries had aimed their vitriol at the wrong guy. He was just a facade. The military was his support base, and he fell when they withdrew their support. Would he have fallen otherwise? Who knows? The question is moot.
This can only end with the bitter defeat of one immovable force - presently they are two. The Islamists and the military. Both are going nowhere. Where the middle-class and working class choose to go will decisively defeat the other. But can they act decisively? Unlikely? And this the military know only too well. They will do what they can to divide the middle class and working class should they be unable to persuade or co-opt them to join en masse. For students of history they certainly are. For decades now, the Arab govts have successfully kept the Islamists out of power by force-with difficulty of course. With civil war even (see Algeria). But keep them out they have done. Now the military is back in power, you better get used to seeing business as usual as if the revolution never happened. Cosmetic changes sure, but nothing substantial. The counter-revolution has won. Mubarak wasn't the enemy. His degenerative govt wasn't the power base. They were facades of power. All this while, patient and biding their time, was the military. And now, as they have always done usurping power in Egypt, they are reclaiming their historical role in history.
That is my pessimistic reading of the Egyptian revolution-lights out. Nothing more to see here. The Islamist-liberal-working class alliance will not be repaired the next few years. The counter-revolutionary will win. It will be bloody, it will take time, but win they will. Why? Because they understand the lessons of history better than their enemies, and have acted accordingly. All this while the Islamists and non-Islamists continue to boo and hiss at each other. And as usual with successful governments, the military will continue to divide the opposition. For now the non-Islamists have been co-opted. Later if necessary they will ally with a weakened Islamist power base if necessary and attack the liberals should the latter get ideas above their station, just like Morsi dared to do.
Machiavelli would be proud.