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.