Compressing History

Revolutions don't happen over a weekend.

I haven’t chimed in yet on the civil unrest that’s unfolding in Egypt for a couple of reasons. For one, I thought my colleagues here were doing just fine. For another, I think most commentary is terribly premature. I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of posts that I think are reasonable and make a few general observations.

First, Mark Safranski has a good round-up of links to commentary on what’s happening in Egype that I think is worthy of your attention. Second, the columnist Leslie Gelb has a pretty fair (and brief) summary of the least bad courses for U. S. policy:

1. Call on all sides to restore order and stability—with as much restraint on government force as possible. Little or nothing can get done if the killings mount. Under present circumstances, Mubarak won’t compromise, and if he did, “the people” would only demand more. And everything would fly out of control again. The Army is best positioned to do what’s necessary here, including using minimum necessary force.

2. Shut up publicly as much as possible and use American influence privately to guide Mubarak toward a power transition “he could be proud of.” He can’t stay in office for long, but he can go in a way that befits a strong ally and allows for a legacy he can be proud of. (And by the way, the White House should also stop threatening publicly to cut off aid to his government. Make such points in private.)

3. Bring in Egyptian voices and others respected by them to speak truth to the people. Tell them it will take years to fix Egypt’s mountain of problems. Urge them to say that the start would be a coalition government with Mubarak as president for as short a period as possible and no more than a year, followed by elections supervised by the United Nations.

Criticizing President Obama’s reactions to the events for being insufficiently supportive of the demonstrators or insufficiently supportive of the Mubarak government is not only backseat driving, it’s slapping Tommie when it’s his brother, Bobbie, sitting next to him who’s misbehaving. Because you can reach him, presumably. U. S. policy WRT Egypt is lousy but it was forged in a period very different from today, has been formed over the period of the last 50 years, and has been screwed up by a succession of administrations of both political parties. We have very little ability to shape what’s happening in Egypt and whatever we do will be a mistake.

It is premature to call what’s going on in Egypt a revolution but there’s a dynamics to revolutions that should make us reluctant to hope that the demonstrations turn into a bona fide revolution. It may not apply unfailingly to all revolutions but it’s common enough that it should be reflected upon. Here are the general contours:

  1. An incompetent or corrupt government is replaced, frequently by moderates.
  2. The moderate provisional government is unable to satisfy the expectations of the people.
  3. The initial revolutionary government becomes increasingly harsh or is replaced by a harsher faction, even a faction with far less popular support than there was for the original revolution.
  4. A reign of terror ensues.
  5. A strongman emerges.

Revolutions do not take place over a weekend. What we refer to as “the Russian Revolution” actually consisted of two revolutions in 1917 and a civil war. First, there was a February Revolution that overthrew the Tsar and established a provisional government. The relatively moderate Kerensky government was in turn overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. That in turn was followed by a bloody civil war that lasted until 1920.

The “French Revolution”began in 1789. It was three years between the beginning of the revolution, the establishing of a republic, and the execution of Louis XVI. The revolution continued over the better part of a decade.

Although we think of the Chinese Revolution as having taken place when Mao Zedong’s forces prevailed over the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, the revolution began with the overthrow of the emperor in 1911, continued when the Chinese republic was overthrown in 1913, and a state of civil war prevailed in China over much of the next twenty-five years to be ended by Mao and his forces achieving control over the country.

I am not claiming that a revolution in Egypt will inevitably lead to the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamist government in Egypt. It may or it may not, although I think that it’s a legitimate concern. Other than the present government the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be the most highly organized and cohesive group in Egypt.

What I am saying is that you cannot determine how civil unrest in a country will hand based on the way that it begins. What starts as a popular uprising to establish a more democratic government may not end up that way.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Peter says:

    One advantage Mubarak has is that he could resign without losing face. As he is 82 years old, he could very plausibly say that he no longer has the energy to lead Egypt through such difficult times.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    One of my concerns is that Mubarak may not be able to conceive of not being able to leave control of Egypt to his son and his family.

  3. steve says:

    Seems like the key in these actions is what the army decides to do. Even in poorly run countries like Afghanistan, they seem to maintain some respect for the military.


  4. Drew says:

    After reading the “general contours” I’m depressed and in need of Maalox……….