In September, I wrote “Historically, extremism and renewed authoritarianism have arisen mainly through a backlash against attempts from inside or outside to limit or rollback the revolution. If allowed to unwind without major internal or external threats, revolutions generally move toward a middle ground.”
The confrontations now raging across Egypt’s cities, with at least 20 killed, is a fight over the SCAF’s attempt to ‘rollback the revolution’ by limiting the authority of any future civilian regime and securing a privileged economic and political role for the army. In many ways, this appears an attempt to preserve elements of the Mubarak regime long after the Mubarak family was removed from power.
This attempt seems bound to fail. The full coalition of protestors — from liberals to Salafists — has come out against the military’s plans, and have not backed down even in the face of lethal police power.
There is a risk of polarization, to be sure. This is the first time Islamists and specifically Salafists have taken the lead in popular mobilization. But the full coalition has joined in, and I hope that this experience reinforces the broad cross-class and multi-group alliance that made the revolution in January.
In Syria too, violence is raging — we hear of sectarian violence in Homs along with anti-regime violence by military defectors. This too raises the risk of a cross-class and multi-group coalition against the Asad regime breaking down in to factions each seeking their own ends.
Revolutions typically have a staccato rythm, with waves of violent confrontation surging against inevitable efforts by elites and conservatives to limit or reverse the more radical aims of the revolution. In this process, two paths lay ahead. One path is that of a broad coalition remaining intact and supportive of the revolution; this leads to triumph and progress toward democracy. The other path is polarization, the ascendancy of radical extremists to battle the counter-revolutionary forces, and a future of authoritarian rule.
We have not had a revolution with the latter outcome since 1979, when the Nicaraguan and Iranian revolutions, both of which began with broad multi-group coalitions, slid toward Sandinist and Islamic regimes. It is vital that all groups who played a role in making the revolution continue to play a role in shaping its progress and moving it forward. I believe Egypt is still on that track, and this will lead to a better outcome.
I’m not sure the notion of a “Sandinist” regime shutting out all other contenders holds, especially in relation to the (putative) “Islamic Revolution’s” usurpation of the broad-based Iranian Revolution (1979-81). Under great pressure, the Sandinista dominated government held free and fair elections (adjudged so by virtually all international observers except for the US…until we decided we liked the results of the second election and then decided they had been free and fair) in 1985 and 1990. When they lost the 1990 elections to the US-backed, opposition candidate (albeit former member of the government), they accepted the results and walked away. However “illliberal,” there would seem to be something at least broadly replicating the institutions of Western, liberal, bourgeois democracy in place in Nicaragua and various parties have held power and won elections..If the Egyptians had an outcome similar to Nicaragua’s–however weak that is–it would be far (far) more democratic than anything they have known previously, no?
One other point I feel is too often elided over: since 1952 the Egyptian military has been in firm control and events of the last 48 hours do nothing to suggest they are ready to loosen that grip.
Meanwhile, is there a growing rift in Iran? And what might an Israeli attack portend?
Eric, you are right on most points. But I think of Nicaragua’s Sandinist regime as narrowing in 1980-1983, when a broad coalition shrank as various groups left the coalition, some to even join the Contras. The Sandinistas did not forcibly shut others out, as far as I know, but they moved toward confrontation with the business and religious leaders who had originally supported the Revolution. In 1990 they lost an election, and admirably left power. But Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega has again won power in a widely critized and contested election; an endless Ortega regime is hardly what most Nicaraguans thought they were fighting for in 1979. Nor would such a regime be what Egyptians want today, even if it was freer than Egypt under Mubarak. Stay tuned for more on Iran. From what I understand it is not so much a rift as a marginalizing of Ahmadinejad by Khamenei; it seems certain that the next president will be someone far more loyal to Khamenei, and that Ahmadinejad will join Khatami as a cast-aside former president.