The revolution that overthrew Egypt’s last pharaoh and installed a new one in his place now has been overthrown itself — by military decree. As fully expected. Chaos breeds a demand for order, for clear authority, and what could be more authoritarian than military rule?
This familiar process isn’t confined to our own time, or just the Middle East. It may be the natural course of modern revolutions, which still follow the pattern set by the French one, and that make the American Revolution the great exception to a dismal rule — a revolution that somehow brought liberty and order, thanks to a founding generation unmatched by revolutionaries elsewhere. Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison … where else do you find their counterparts? And our ever with-it intellectuals say America isn’t exceptional. Tell it to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the tempest-tossed to whom the word for hope is still America.
Recommended reading: “Anatomy of Revolution” by Crane Brinton, the classic that charts the progress, or rather regress, of modern revolutions as a series of shock waves that go from left to right till the pendulum reaches its Reign of Terror, then pauses as it reaches the end of its arc (Thermidor) and begins to swing back. At that point, new tyrants succeed the old, and it isn’t always easy to tell the difference. Except that the new commissars may be crueler than the old czars, the new generals more beneficent than the old tyrants. It all depends on just where the wheel of history stops this spin.
See the latest news from Cairo, where this year’s pharaoh had declared his regime above the rule of law, that relic of Western colonialism. Mohammed Morsi had started doing everything a dictator does except call himself one. He purged the judiciary, doing away with that inconvenience known as the rule of law, and announced that there would be no appealing his decrees in Egypt’s increasingly irrelevant courts. The new Egyptian president courtesy of the Muslim Brotherhood decreed that the old one be retried, not yet having exacted the fullest measure of revenge on his predecessor.
Yet the new pharaoh was careful not to order any retrial of lower-level types in his state’s security apparatus so he could count on their thuggery when needed. And he began pushing Egypt down the road his counterparts in Turkey have been on for some time — back to Sharia law, to restrictions on those uppity women, speech codes and all the rest. Back to the era of the Caliphs, a rising middle class and a new internetted society be damned! It didn’t work, thankfully. At least for now.
It happens again and again: The same revolutionaries who overthrew the old regime now reinstate it under new management. For the moment all is further confusion and consternation, yet Egypt’s new rulers in braid bring with them something that has been missing for some time: hope. Maybe they mean what they say about their rule being only a transitional phase before free elections in a more stable country, one where the rule of law is respected and where change, for better or worse, will at least be orderly, and therefore predictable, maybe even enduring.
One of the shouters in Tahrir Square, the customary flash point for the revolution of the moment, came up with about the worst name he could call the country’s now ex-president and former strongman … European! Or as he put it, “People have lost faith in him. Anyone who takes such immature decisions can do anything to us, like establish a religious state similar to the dark ages of Europe.”
Indeed, the current withdrawal of one Middle Eastern “republic” into the veil of Islam, complete with hijab and averted gaze, does begin to resemble the Europe of the Inquisition and auto-da-fé. See the slow slide of Turkey into Ottomanism. Lest we forget, the most visionary and achieving of the Middle East’s leaders of the last century was a military dictator who took his country into a new and better age: the redoubtable Kemal Ataturk. It was his secular, revolutionary reforms that are only now being undermined by an Islamist ruler who is also running out of time (let’s hope).
There are some things worse than military rule, like rule by fanatics in the guise of Justice and Development, the name of Turkey’s now dominant and increasingly intolerant party, which already has taken the precaution of purging the military and jailing journalists who haven’t learned to keep their mouths shut.
As for this supposedly new Egypt, the names of the rulers may be different but the old Egypt of perishable names like Hosni Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, Gamal Abdel Nasser and now Mohammed Morsi persists — as reliable as the annual flood of the Nile. The pattern goes back to a time when the names chiseled in stone might be Amenhotep IV or cruel Khufu of the fourth dynasty. Egypt’s history may no longer be written in hieroglyphics, and its rulers are now called presidents instead of pharaohs, but Egypt remains remarkably unchanged. Once again it is time to plant a new political order. May this latest planting bear a rich harvest, not another bitter one.