The Revolution Rolls On

By Jean Hodgkinson

A revolution can neither be made nor stopped. The only thing that can be done is for one if its children to give it direction by dint of victories -Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon spent his youth training to be a soldier, not a politician. But as a general he was capable of navigating the chaos unleashed by the French Revolution of 1789 and subsequently had himself declared Emperor in 1804, a mere 11 years after the execution of King Louis XVI. The Revolution had established the First French Republic in 1792 only to see it replaced, not with the departed Bourbon monarchy but with this new Emperor who was, in the final analysis, a king in everything but name.

It is one of history’s most reliable patterns: revolutions inspire reaction. Almost invariably revolutionaries push their reforms too far, a society’s conservative forces re-capture control of the nation and then reverse most if not all of the revolution’s gains the first chance they get. It happened in France. And the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is another famous example. After the 1953 overthrow of Muhammad Mossadeq’s popularly elected, progressive and secular government, the installation of the Shah was a step backward in time. Yet in 1979 a progressive, secular uprising to overthrow him was co-opted by ultra-conservative religious clerics and the reactionary Islamic Republic was born. Now it appears the formula is playing itself out in Egypt.

Last week, Egypt’s government was basking in the glow of international accolades after helping negotiate the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Then on Thursday president Mohamed Morsi “stipulated that any challenges to his decrees, laws and decisions were banned,” reported France24. “The presidential decree also stated that no court could dissolve the country’s Constituent Assembly, which is drawing up a new Egyptian constitution.” But like any country, Egypt is home to a variety of competing interests who are constantly jockeying for position. So this week, Egyptians watch as massive anti-government protests flare up anew.

A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi won last June’s presidential election with 51% of the vote, hardly a sweeping mandate for the radical step of writing a constitution which cannot be challenged. Mohamed El Baradei, best known to the West as Director General of the International Atomic Agency from 1997 to 2009, promptly accused Morsi of attempting to be “a new pharaoh.” Even Egypt’s stock market was rattled. According to local news source Ahram, it plunged 9-and-a-half percent the first day of trading after Morsi made his declaration and “trading had to be suspended.”

When former military strongman Hosni Mubarak was chased from the president’s office in February 2011, the big question was whether Egypt’s military would relinquish its power to a civilian government. Last week’s decree is part of “a protracted struggle for legitimacy in the new Egypt that has lurched from crisis to crisis,” surmised the UK Guardian. “And it has been the courts in particular, regarded as still influenced by the old regime, that have rocked the delicate process with their rulings, including dissolving the Muslim Brotherhood-led lower house of parliament. Morsi’s edicts effectively shut down the judiciary’s ability to repeat its actions, neutering the only civilian branch of government with any independence.”

The Inter Press Service had this to say: “In a scene reminiscent of the heady days of the revolution [of February 2011], television stations used split screens to cover Friday’s pro- and anti-government rallies. As riot police rained tear gas down on his critics in Tahrir Square, Morsi triumphantly took the stage at a rally organised by the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming the mantle of the revolution … Hoping to assuage fears, Morsi promised to relinquish his supplementary powers once a new constitution is adopted and a new parliament elected.”

But opponents of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood probably recall that in August 2011, “thousands of activists from groups and political parties that supported the Egyptian revolution gathered in Cairo for a conference aimed at coordinating efforts to protect the gains of the revolution and ensure a transition to full democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood,” wrote the Egypt Independent newspaper at the time, “did not officially participate, although group members attended unofficially.”

Morsi’s official declaration last week, however, went like this: “The president can issue any decision or measure to protect the revolution.” This was precisely the kind of language Napoleon used on the people of France while he was stripping away their newly acquired rights and waging war all over Europe. Until of course he flipped the Republic into an Empire.