Rousseau, Revolutions and Egypt

Once again, the World is witness to the revolutionary aspirations of a people long suppressed. Today it is Egypt. Yesterday it was Tunisia and decades before that Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Iran. The Russians endured their own revolution in the early 1900’s and the French in the 1800’s. We had our own in the century before and there have been others in between.

So what will become of Egypt? Will true democratic reform follow? Or will their aspirations be hijacked in an exchange of rulers more interested in their power than others freedom? While the courses of revolutions are rather unpredictable, the answer likely lies with the nature of Egyptian society.

Some transitions, whether catalyzed by an internal revolution or outside regime change, succeed and are witness to an enlightened new rule; others fail and either relapse into prior existences or merely exchange one set of rulers for what the French philosopher Voltaire would say were others, only less refined.

Another 18th Century French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was more stark when he wrote that

“People accustomed to masters will not let mastery cease … Mistaking liberty for unchained license, they are delivered by their revolutions into the hands of seducers who will only aggravate their chains …”

So why do some transitions succeed where others fail? The answer lies in the political and economic maturity of those who would rule and the disbursement of economic power. The French Revolution, which began the year after Rousseau’s death, featured great economic disparity between the rulings classes and an underclass that mistook their inspired but sudden liberty for unchained license. Unaccustomed to governing and with a limited commercial underpinning, the property they destroyed was not their own.

In the end, the divergence between their aspiration to govern and their ability to govern left them vulnerable to seducers. The chaos, which included the Reign of Terror and the deaths of thousands at the hands of “reformers,” was finally quelled by the order of another master in the form of Napoleon – thereby fulfilling Rousseau’s warning. The Russian Revolution followed a not dissimilar pattern and featured a similar, scarce middle/commercial class for whom self-governance was a stranger.

The fate of our own revolution was different. Buffered by an ocean and lacking the great economic class divisions of pre-revolutionary France and Russia, America had a burgeoning commercial class that distributed economic power more evenly than France or Russia. America was also afforded much greater degrees of self-governance for over 100 years. In that way, when they took battlefield, they sought not to destroy the wealth around them because, in many cases, it was their own and when they took the reins of power they could fall back more on their reasoned experience than rage.

Will the same be true of Egypt? Or will it suffer the same fate of France, Russia, Rhodesia and Iran who have seen democratic aspirations crushed by seducers who only aggravated their chains?

The future is always difficult to predict and regarding revolutions perhaps more so. As we hazard a guess, we note that in 2008, the IMF reported that Egypt was instituting serious economic reforms. Even so, Egypt has had near double digit unemployment for two decades amidst some of the world’s most dense urban areas. The Heritage Foundation recently scored Egypt 96th in the world in economic freedom and just 11th out of the region’s 17 countries. Worse yet and perhaps more telling, in 2010, The Economist, in its Democracy Index, ranked Egypt 128th out of 167 countries. None of that bodes particularly well – especially given the absence of a heroic figure like Poland’s Lech Walesa fighting for freedom and given the presence of such potential autocratic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

The security analyst KT McFarland, who worked with Henry Kissinger for 7 years, notes that revolutions often go through three acts. Act One is the removal of a dictator. Act Two is the emergence of a reform movement which she states often becomes at odds with itself and Act Three is dominated by an organized minority that is ruthless and takes over power. Rousseau would quite agree. McFarland suggests that strategic assistance is most necessary at Act Two so that Act Three never comes to pass.

History has shown, however, that even strategic assistance cannot help some countries undergoing Act Two. In this case, the Obama Administration is fanning the flames in Egypt with daily pronouncements by our President on what should happen in streets filled with inequity and instability thousands of miles away – thereby fanning the flames of discontent – the near opposite of what McFarland suggests should happen given her preference for private diplomacy over grandstanding.

None of that should be a surprise for an Administration that never would want to waste a crisis for their own benefit. The problem for Egyptians is that they may be seduced into dynamics that they cannot control and which could lead to even less freedom.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.