From the Bloody Nursery of Revolution, Democracy

tags: French Revolution, violence, revolutions, Guillaume Mazeau, Reign of Terror



Guillaume Mazeau is Maître de conférences en histoire moderne, at the Institut d'Histoire de la Révolution française at Université Paris-1 Panthéon Sorbonne.

More than two years after the hope that accompanied the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Occidental experts, politicians and public opinions are now chocked by the return of political violence in Egypt, perpetuated by the military. What is striking about these reactions is the difficulty to understand why so many Egyptian former dissidents, liberals and even leftists, who fought against Mubarak and his military dictatorship, now clearly support General Al-Sisi’s coup and even justify the recent massacres of Muslim Brothers. Is it possible to explain such a dramatic shift without blaming these sincere men and women, who claim to struggle for democracy but, at the same time, approve the use of political violence?

The history of modern Atlantic revolutions provides, perhaps, a few answers to these questions. We have indeed forgotten how long and difficult “our” revolutions have been. In very different times and for different reasons, occidental revolutionaries of modernity have dealt with such complex dilemma: how is it possible to create and preserve democracy in the context of revolution, civil war and military conflict? In America and in Europe of the end of the eighteenth century, many liberals and/or revolutionaries pragmatically justified political repression (of the Irish revolutionaries by British troops in 1798), massacres (the American “Indian Wars” of the 1790s), exceptional laws and even dictatorships (the French “Terror” between 1793 and 1794).

Despite the liberal legend, occidental revolutions have never been beds of roses, but typically violent political transitions and civil wars. Our fragile democracies were born in bloody nurseries. They are much more the daughters of difficult compromises than pure political ideals. That is why what happens now in Egypt both deals with a civil revolutionary process and a military counter-revolution.


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