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Egypt and Beyond: The Need for Patience

What's going on in Egypt?  The short answer is: precisely what we should have expected.  What is happening is obviously disturbing, but it is also a completely predictable and probably protracted struggle for power. And unless the "Arab spring" is quite atypical, the political revolutions that began two years ago are going to take years to work out.

To summarize a passage from my 1996 book Revolution and War:

"Revolutions are usually (invariably?) characterized by violence. Even when the old regime collapses quickly, there is likely to be a violent struggle afterwards. The issues at stake are enormous, because the process of redefining a political community places everyone's future at risk. Until a new order is firmly established, no one is safe from exclusion and the temptation to use force to enhance one's position is difficult to resist. The possibility that winners will take all and losers will lose everything heightens the level of suspicion and insecurity. Fears of plots and conspiracies abound. Disagreements over specific policies can become life-or-death struggles . . . and achieving consensus on what new rules and institutions should govern the society is likely to be a difficult and prolonged process. In sum, revolutions are deadly serious contests for extremely high stakes." [pp. 20-21]

The history of modern revolutions confirms this view. The American Revolution was comparatively benign (though it did involve both a war of independence and the persecution and expulsion of the defeated loyalists), but more than a decade passed from the signing of the original Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. The original Articles of Confederation (1783) proved wholly inadequate, and the fight over the new Constitutions was protracted and sometimes bitter. Nor should we forget that the Founding Fathers sometimes saw each other as near-treasonous, and disputes between different factions were even more contentious than the partisan wrangling we observe today.

The French Revolution was equally protracted: it began in 1789, but Louis XVI was not deposed until 1792 and revolutionary France was convulsed by recurring struggles for power and several distinct governments and constitutions before Napoleon Bonaparte finally seized power in 1799 and eventually declared himself Emperor. By this standard, Egypt has a very long way to go.

The Russian Revolution was also a prolonged process: the Romanov dynasty was initially replaced by Kerensky's Provisional Government in March 1917, which was then ousted by the Bolshevik coup in November. But the Bolsheviks had to fight and win a protracted civil war and repel several foreign interventions before they consolidated their hold on power, a process not completed until the mid-1920s. Infighting among the Soviet leaders continued until Stalin was able to eliminate his various rivals and emerge supreme in the early 1930s.

The revolutions in Turkey, Mexico, China, and Iran were also violent and uncertain affairs, and in each case it took years before the final form of the new regime was reasonably well-established. Mao Zedong famously said that "a revolution is not a dinner party," and one might merely add that they are rarely, if ever, short.

There are several lessons to take from this quick history. First, unless the old guard somehow manages to regain full power quickly (thereby cutting off the revolutionary process), what is happening in Egypt (and elsewhere) will take a long time to work itself out. You cannot dismantle the rules and institutions of a political order and create new ones overnight. Even if you try, the various groups that have been mobilized through this process won't just nod and accept them, especially the new rules favor some groups more than others. What you get instead, of course, is a protracted struggle for power whose outcome is often highly contingent.

Second, outside powers can influence this process, but they cannot do so predictably. In fact, the more extensive and heavy-handed outside interference is, the more likely it is to backfire. In the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, for example, outside interference helped radicalize the revolution, allowed hardliners to use nationalism and foreign threats as a pretext to crush more moderate forces, thereby producing precisely the outcome that the external powers opposed. It follows that outsiders (to include the United States) need to show enormous patience and a very light touch when dealing with these turbulent situations.

Third, the central theme of my earlier book was the revolutions tend to increase security competition and increase the risk of war. Among other things, they do this by 1) altering the balance of power, 2) creating fears of contagion, 3) encouraging spirals of suspicion, 4) bringing inexperienced elites to power, and 5) creating apparent "windows of opportunity" or necessity. Revolutions do not make war inevitable, but they do make it more likely. And one could argue that we are now in the early stages of just this sort of process, with a proxy war going on in Syria, continued strife in Gaza, and as-yet unresolved political contestation in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and several other places.

Put these three together, and one has to hope that US Middle East policy will be in the hands of people who are smart, sensible, prudent, even-handed, and above all, realistic. Or as Talleyrand recommended: "surtout, pas trop de zele." But how likely is that?

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

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