In revolutions, there often comes a stage of “terror” involving purges, numerous executions, mass arrests, and disappearances. Terror arises at a time when a new government, brought to power by popular agitation, decides the time has come to destroy its enemies.
Evidently, we are now entering that period in Egypt. After the initial mass mobilization and overturning of the old regime of Hosni Mubarak, and the honeymoon period in which hundreds of new political parties came forth and everyone believed in the power of democratic contestation, there followed a period of sharp polarization. In that period, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military emerged as the two major forces struggling for control of Egypt, while secular liberals and intellectuals, Salafists, Coptic Christians, and other groups were marginalized.
At first, the Brotherhood seemed to gain the upper hand, winning the first election for president and packing the new parliament with its followers. The President, Mohammed Morsi, even pushed many of the “old guard” military officers into retirement.
But as with so many revolutionary leaders, Morsi drifted into radicalism, assuming more and more powers unto himself, and giving more legislative power and discretion to his immediate followers. This provoked a counter-coup from the military (or more of a counter-revolution, given that the military spent months demonizing Morsi and building up popular support for their actions, so that more millions of Egyptians went into the streets to demand and then applaud their actions than even turned out to agitate against Mubarak.)
The military, instead of calming things down, however, has heated up revolutionary rhetoric to ever higher degrees, and has further polarized Egyptian society rather than unifying it. The military’s propaganda now depicts Morsi as a terrorist and stooge of the United States, and the Muslim Brotherhood as an international terrorist gang backed by all enemies of Egypt and pious Islam. The Brotherhood has not only been outlawed; MB sympathizers have been hunted down and imprisoned or disappeared, and over 500 MB supporters have been given death sentences for “Terrorism” for supporting the Brotherhood’s politics.
In this mass trial, we see all the hallmarks of revolutionary terror tribunals: the court took only two hours to reach its decision of death for all 528 individuals; there was no jury and no defense presentation; and the majority of those accused did not even appear in court.
Yet if the intent is to destroy the Brotherhood, these actions will not do so. The Brotherhood has been woven into Egyptian society as a widespread underground presence for decades. Their leaders have set up headquarters abroad in Doha, London, and Istanbul.
Moreover, the attacks on the Brotherhood have mobilized other Islamists, including associates of Al-Qaeda, who have led a bombing campaign said to have killed over 400 security personnel since last July.
Field Marshal Sisi has now positioned himself to be the next military man to become Egypt’s President. Yet when he does so, he will inherit a fearsome brew of economic problems, an armed rebellion in parts of the Sinai, an Islamist and terrorist underground, and an angry, polarized society. Sadly, it seems likely that the conflict and violence spawned by Egypt’s revolution is far from over, and may even get worse for another year or two.
Yet phases of terror are usually followed by periods of consolidation. The resultant government may be authoritarian, but is also likely to allow a time for civil society to gradually rebuild itself. One can even hope that democracy will have another chance to move forward a decade from now.
The Revolutions of 1848 in Europe are generally regarded as failures, and indeed ended in counter-revolutions (supported by Russia) and ushered in a period of renewed authoritarian, monarchical rule. With the exception of Tunisia, that also seems the likely outcome in most countries of the Arab Spring. Yet within just 22 years, Europe’s wave of authoritarian rule was being reversed, and in 60 years absolute monarchy had vanished from western Europe. Here is what I wrote about this period in my new book, Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction:
“From 1849 to 1871, conservatism reigned in Europe, and it appeared that the clock was turning back toward monarchies. Yet this was not to be. In 1871, after Prussia defeated Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War, the residents of Paris proclaimed the city to be a revolutionary commune, freed from the erstwhile emperor. Although the revolutionaries were eventually suppressed by a national French Army, the Army made no attempt to restore the Empire. Instead, they proclaimed the Third French Republic; France has been a republic ever since.
The ideas of democracy and constitutional government continued to spread; the Italian states were united as a constitutional monarchy in 1870, and even the Prussian minister Bismarck began granting constitutional rights to Germany’s peoples. In 1918, following Germany’s defeat in World War I, a worker’s revolution helped topple the last German monarch and install the Weimar Republic. By the end of the First World War, every state in Europe had thrown off their absolute monarchies, and all but Russia had become parliamentary, constitutional regimes.”
The current outcomes in North Africa and the Middle East are tragic, and deeply troubling. Yet we should not give up all hope; we have seen this pattern before, and eventually the children of those who were oppressed were able to reclaim democratic and limited government.