Nothing in politics is certain. But history offers some guides to what we can expect from the Egyptian revolution.
First, revolutions are highly contagious, although the speed at which they spread varies. The American revolution of 1776 inspired the French to revolt 13 years later. In the single year of 1848, some 50 peoples across Europe rose in rebellion. Over the course of roughly a decade from the late 1970s to late 1980s, one country after another in Latin America sloughed off dictatorship for democracy. In 1989, Communism was overthrown in every outpost of the Soviet empire and then in the Soviet Union itself. The odds are that the upheaval that started in Tunis (or perhaps in Iran in 2009) and has spread to Egypt will spread farther. These infections usually travel within regions. Whether it is all at once or over the course of the next few years, no Arab regime can count on being immune, nor can the Iranian mullahs.
Second, the odds do not favor happy endings. Many revolutions end in defeat, as did every one of 1848. Yet victory can be even worse. The French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Yugoslavian, and Iranian revolutions were horror stories that subjected their countries to far more suffering than they had known before and made the earth less peaceful. In the Arab world, the most humane and liberal regimes — relatively speaking — have been monarchies that were not overthrown, as in Morocco, Kuwait, and Jordan. In contrast, the revolutionary regimes of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Sudan have been monstrosities.
Still, events have unfolded in a promising way in Tunisia, and there are reasons for hope, even guarded optimism, about Egypt. One is that the protests have been very peaceful. True, some Molotov cocktails have been hurled and buildings burned. But there has been little violence, and the lion’s share of that has come from the authorities or their proxies. Another is that a constructive way forward is available in the discourse that has begun between Omar Suleiman, top military officers, and an array of representatives of civil society, including the opposition. The Obama administration, which started out with several missteps, seems to have found its footing in nurturing these conversations and deserves plaudits for it.
To succeed, the negotiators will have to overcome the mischief of Mohamed ElBaradei. Westernized and avuncular, ElBaradei’s persona belies his record. Sharply anti-American and passionately anti-Israeli, he used his position with the International Atomic Energy Agency to shield Tehran’s development of a nuclear bomb. Now, he hopes to ride the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt.
The cry of the moment is that negotiations cannot proceed until Hosni Mubarak resigns as president. The Egyptian opposition is completely justified in not trusting Mubarak, or for that matter Suleiman, to shape the reforms that are needed. The constitution must be radically overhauled or scrapped entirely; the one in place now was written to preserve one-party rule. The protesters are right to insist that before they stand down new rules must be adopted to assure free elections for president and parliament later this year.
Suleiman should be disabused of the conceit he voiced on ABC TV that democracy in Egypt must be preceded by a “culture of democracy.” True, such a culture is lacking, but his formula is a catch-22: How can it be developed without practicing democracy?
However, it is wrong to demand — as ElBaradei is doing — that Mubarak be humiliated before negotiations can proceed. Yes, power must be wrested from his hands. A good solution would be for him to retire to his vacation home in Sharm el Sheikh, either resigning or remaining as a figure head. But the substance of reforms is separable from the symbolism of Mubarak’s departure. What Egypt needs now is real democratic procedures, not revenge.
The Egyptian revolution is thus already at the first of what will be several forks in the road. Is its goal to create a better future or to settle scores with the past? No doubt the bill of injustices is long. But these two desiderata are often in tension with each other. The focus on a full accounting of past wrongs often leads not to justice but to the guillotine.
That may not trouble ElBaradei. The Muslim Brotherhood regime that he apparently dreams of leading will not be longer on mercy than the governments in Iran and Gaza that he views benignly. But a tragic history of revolutions, including their own in the 1950s, ought to sober all Egyptians and well-wishers of Egypt who hope that this one will have a happy ending.