Revolutions and democracies: whither Egypt?

This is an exercise in cherry-picking and choosing a selective narrative, and it should be treated as such. Furthermore, I have not followed closely what has been happening in Egypt. Therefore, this piece is very much an exercise in idle speculation, based on a very vague understanding of history and politics. Here, I am positing that revolutions, rather like buses, do not come frequently, but when they do, they tend to come in close succession, and revolutions do not always – or for that matter, normally – establish stable democracies. For this reason, I would not be surprised, if Egypt does not become a stable democracy: indeed, I would be surprised, very pleasantly so, if Egypt were to emerge as a stable democracy in the near future.

The first revolution in the series of revolutions is probably the easiest, in that many people are united in their wish to rid of the existing regime. The problem begins when the different visions held by different groups that participated in the revolution start to clash against each other. In addition to the squabbles within the erstwhile allies that brought about the revolution, there are counter-revolutionaries, who want to get back to the pre-revolutionary system, or roll back the extent of the revolution. The initial revolution spawns many different narratives of that revolution, and what it was all about. Those who played a part in the revolution, but lose out in the settlement, will claim that the revolution has been betrayed, and that they are its true heirs, who argue further that there needs to be another revolution to complete the first revolution. In their eyes, the post-revolutionary government is illegitimate, because of that betrayal. The post-revolutionary government has a problem, because it is supported by some, not all, of the revolutionaries, and they face constant threat of being ousted, whether through the ballot or by the bullet. Sometimes, the answer is to go dictatorial: becoming the thing that the revolutionaries overthrew. Sometimes, the post-revolutionary government is overthrown, and the roles are reversed: those ousted will now claim that they are the true heir to the revolution, and the instigators of the second revolution are betraying the first revolution, and so it goes on.

In order to support my argument, that revolutions happen in close proximity, and they rarely establish stable democracies, I refer to the great revolutions in modern Europe: the French and the Russian Revolutions. The French Revolution was not a singular event, but a series of revolutions and coups, and it is arguable that a durable democracy – and that only takes into account male suffrage, leaving out female suffrage, which is an unsatisfactory definition for democracy – was only established during the Third Republic, almost a century after 1789. The Third Republic is fascinating, partly because I know very little about it, and partly because it somehow managed to survive for so long, including the First World War, despite the huge internal divisions within France, and a very shaky start, where there was a strong monarchist sentiment. As for the Russian Revolution, it established a one-party dictatorship after the second revolution in October (Julian calendar). Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is hardly a model of liberal democracy: it is intriguing how the looming centenary of the 1917 revolutions will be narrated, both by historians and in popular minds.

If revolutions are problematic, then what makes a political system democratic? Political scientists probably have very many theories and definitions to answer that question. Naturally, there are many elements to a democracy, such as the rule of law, and defining what makes something democracy and what are the preconditions for a stable democracies, then it would end up as a very long thesis. For that reason, I am boiling it down to something very basic. To me, a fundamental test of democracy is not whether the government is elected by a free and fair popular vote or not, but whether it can be voted out by a free and fair popular vote or not, and if defeated, the members of the outgoing government accept the decision and will of the people.

Which route will Egypt take? I doubt anyone can be confident about predicting the course of Egyptian politics. There might be another revolution or two, and a prolonged period of instability, before a democracy is established. The current government might start to resemble the toppled regime more and more. There might be a period of stability after the current upheaval, and the Egyptian people will have the opportunity to vote out or continue with the current government in a free and fair election. Only time will tell.