Revolutionary Situations are Inherently Messy

tags: French Revolution, Arab Spring, Egypt, revolutions, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is a professor of history and director of graduate studies at California State University, San Marcos.

Social scientists who study revolutions and other historical processes generally look for patterns and similarities. Historians, by contrast, have traditionally focused on factors that are specific to each situation, in each time and in each place. They seek to understand the particularities of each situation, rather than generalize about commonalities.

Like most historians, I tend to analyze events based on particular historical contexts. And yet, after twenty-five years of studying eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revolutions (and watching new ones erupt in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries), I cannot help but notice certain patterns that recur in almost all revolutionary situations.

One is that revolutionary situations are inherently messy. In a society ripe for revolution, there are multiple groups who are unhappy with the existing regime, each for different reasons. What distinguishes a successful revolutionary situation (where citizens succeed in overthrowing their government) from more ordinary social protests often has to do not only with the strength of an existing regime, but also with the extent of dissatisfaction. In a successful revolutionary situation, opposition groups have generally agreed on a core common principle: the existing regime must go!! Groups which do not normally see eye to eye (i.e., socialists and liberals in France and Germany in 1848; secularists and Islamicists in Egypt in 2011) unite temporarily to overthrow a hated regime.

But once they have succeeded in ousting that regime -- and eliminated their common external enemy -- then what?

If a revolution was made in the name of “the people,” who exactly are these people? What happens when there are numerous groups in society with diametrically opposed visions for the future? How can the will of “the people” be measured? After toppling the common enemy, former allies compete ardently with each other to assume control of the new regime. As they struggle to define what the revolution was about, and who should lead the country, these tensions frequently become violent. Sometimes they develop into full-blown civil wars.

For a student of comparative revolutions, the current violence in Egypt is thus distressing, but not at all unexpected. Egypt is experiencing the near-inevitable growing pains of a revolution’s subsequent stages. The revolution seemed finished once Hosni Mubarak was chased from power in February 2011. And yet -- what did the revolution mean? Was it a secular revolution or an Islamicist one? In the wake of the unity and national euphoria that accompanied the overthrow of Mubarak, the people successfully pushed for elections. Yet in elections, there are winners and losers. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood won the Presidential runoff in 2012, but with only 51.7 percent of the vote. A sizable plurality of citizens were opposed to his rule, and the number increased over the course of his first year in office. As the one-year anniversary of his assuming the presidency arrived in late June 2013, millions of Egyptians began protesting in the streets; in their view, he had betrayed the revolution they had risked their lives for in 2011. In the name of this growing opposition, Egypt’s army overthrew Morsi on July 3, 2013. After this coup, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters have themselves flocked to the streets, furious that their election victory has been thwarted. In their view, the revolution is being hijacked. To quell their angry and impassioned protests, the army has begun killing Morsi supporters.

As difficult as it is for any nation to overthrow their government, it often proves even harder to build a stable new regime on the ruins of the old one. Unfortunately, it is more the exception than the rule that a revolution finds stability instead of descending into violence.

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