David A. Bell: Why We Can't Rule Out an Egyptian Reign of Terror





[David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus professor in the era of North Atlantic revolutions at Princeton University.]

There are, of course, many different ways of categorizing historical revolutions. But for the purposes of understanding what is happening in Egypt -- and the challenges it may pose for the United States -- one simple, rough distinction may be especially useful. This is the distinction between revolutions that look more like 1688 and revolutions that look more like 1789. The first date refers to England's "Glorious Revolution," in which the Catholic, would-be absolute monarch James II was overthrown and replaced by the Protestant William and Mary and the English Parliament claimed powerful and enduring new forms of authority. The second is, of course, the date of the French Revolution, which began as an attempt to create a constitutional monarchy but ultimately led to the execution of King Louis XVI, the proclamation of the First French Republic, and the Reign of Terror....

In recent years, it seems as if the 1789 type of revolution has lost its appeal for most of the world. During the greatest series of political upheavals in recent times -- the collapse of communism -- most leaders of the victorious reform movements rejected the word "revolution" altogether. The Polish Solidarity leader Jacek Kuron went so far as to write in the summer of 1989, apropos of the French Revolution's bicentennial, that Poland did not want a revolution because revolutions spill too much blood. Germans refer to the events of 1989 as the "Turning," not the "Revolution." It was, above all, in Czechoslovakia that the word "revolution" came to describe what happened in 1989, but paired with the word "velvet" to underscore the differences from the great revolutions of the past....

Egypt probably does not face the prospect of an Islamic Revolution in the next few months. But if Mubarak falls and is replaced by a weak, unstable series of governments that cannot restore order or deliver serious social and economic reforms -- and thus quickly lose credibility and legitimacy among the population -- then a different, far more radical revolutionary movement may yet develop. And despite the current lack of a charismatic leader for such a movement, one could quickly emerge out of the torrent of events. In July 1789, Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton were unknown lawyers; Jean-Paul Marat an unknown doctor, known to most of his acquaintances as something of a crackpot. Within four years, they had emerged as leaders of the most radical revolution yet seen in history....


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