People's revolution in Egypt vs. The French Revolution

Recent elections in Egypt held hope for many citizens that genuine democratic reforms could form the basis of a new government. Unfortunately, not all revolutions leave the people with what they want.       Photo: Associated Press

SAN JOSE, June 28, 2012—  The recent elections in Egypt held hope for many citizens that genuine democratic reforms would form the basis of the new government. Unfortunately, not all revolutions have created proper foundations for what the majority of the people wanted in the process of establishing a new government. 

Early in 2011, the world watched as Egyptian people: men, women, and so many young people, took to the streets to protest their nation’s dismal condition within the community of nations. So many in the world felt compassion for the plight of the Egyptian people. They were focused, they were brave, they were determined to have a better country. But  with the “free” elections last week ultimately between two absolutist types of candidates, one may wonder if the people have received anything close to their genuine aspirations.

The tally of votes for the Egyptian presidential elections last week allowed the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Mursi, to claim victory. On the losing end of the presidential election bid was the candidate the Egyptian Army supported, Ahmed Shafik.

As recently as June 14, 2012, the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court overruled a law passed by the Egyptian parliament in May banning former Mubarak Administration figures from running for elected office, stating it was unconstitutional. This allowed Shafik – a former Prime Minister under Mubarak – to remain eligible to run for president.

This choice between the two candidates, from a simple observer’s vantage point, was a choice between what type of despotism the people would prefer. On the one hand Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, the one who won the election, represents a movement of Islamic fundamentalists who insist on the absolute authority of Islamic law.

On the other hand, Ahmed Shafikwas the obvious former member of Mubarik’s administration, which essentially ran the country as an autocratic dictatorship.  

The Supreme Constitutional Court, the same good folks that allowed Shafik to participate in the elections, announced that the law regulating the 2011 parliamentary elections was invalid and the elections had been conducted illegally. The outcome of this edict was that the Parliament was immediately dissolved. But not to worry, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which is the official name for the Army, has solved the problem of the illegal elections (funny how democratic elections get on the way of progress) and at this point announced that it has reclaimed all legislative authority.  

SCAF also assured the people that the Army will select a 100-person assembly that will write the country’s new constitution because the disbanded parliament failed to agree on a group of people to form a committee to write the new constitution. And by the way, the brand new constitution will outline the powers of the new president and the new  parliament. So, what seems to be shaping up in Egypt is another manifestation of staunch control of the people. In short, whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood or SCAF, it seems that the ultimate leadership of the people is not completely representative of the people. 

A student of history would recognize this as an age old narrative. One glaring example in world history is the French Revolutiuon which started in 1789, the same year that Washington took the oath of office as the new President of the United States. Although an accurate parallel is difficult to establish because of the duration and various stages of the French Revolution, similarites of a general nature exist between this landmark period and the most recent Egyptian Revolution. 

The end result of the French Revolution was that this popular revolution devolved into confusion, chaos, rampant suspicion, and widespread accusaton, condemnation and execution of individuals without much control. In short, the people’s revolution, imbued with noble ideals, deteriorated into a reprehensible bloodbath of horror during the Reign of Terror. Ultimately, Napolean Bonaparte, the eventual leader of the French Army, wormed his way into absolute power.

The French Revolution which lasted from 1789 – 1799, has been studied by philosophers, politicians, scholars, and students for centuries and much has been written about this turbulent time in France’s history. This period, although romanticized by many, is quite disturbing since a people’s revolution, ostensibly intent on liberty and equality, devolved into a display of some of the most inhumane atrocities fueled by resentment and disdain for the monarchy, for the aristocracy, for the Roman Catholic Church, for one another, and even disdain toward God.

To his credit, even Robespierre attempted to harness the atheist tendencies of the revolution (he was a Deist) and for a period was successful, but in the end, even he was executed in 1794, only one year after King Louis XVI  was beheaded with the voice of Robespierre in full support. The irony in this was that in opposing the atheists, he had many of them executed and in an attempt to generate a spiritual foundation for the revolution, he established a state religion called the Cult of the Supreme Being.   

Before the king was executed in 1793, the people had created a Legislative Assembly composed of various political factions, one of which were the Girondists (liberal republicans) who wanted to export the revolution to the rest of Europe. Robespierre also opposed this effort and tried to stem the tide of war fever among those of extreme influence in the Assembly. He warned of a potential tyranny which could result from such action. But France eventually went to war with several sovereign states and toward the end of 1792, had conquered several territories.

During this time, France was beset with internal disorder as counter-revolution swept through the country, so there was fighting within France and outside of France to “extend the revolution.” By the time Napolean rose to power, it was fairly easy for him to consolidate his authority into absolute power. By 1804, Napolean proclaimed himself the Emperor of France.

His bold efforts to dominate not only the French people, but most of the people in Europe, plunged all of Europe into war. The other European nations which had fought previously against the French Republic and declared peace with the fledgling nation, reconsidered their positions and actively strove to end Napolean’s quest for the domination of Europe. 

Viewing the political landscape in Egypt in 2012, it appears that there are similarities  of the efforts during the French Revolution which corrupted a genuine people’s movement yearning for freedom, for less restrictions on speech and assembly, and more genuine participation  in a popularly elected, democratically inclined government. It will take more time to see where the people’s revolution will lead. But at this point in time, it seems to be drifting away from what the people intended. Genuine ‘Freedom is quite fragile and precious in such a turbulent world.

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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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