How Long, Oh Egyptians, Will This Revolution Go On?
Several months ago I was at a public talk here at Miami University on the Middle Eastern uprisings by a visiting scholar. When it was over, the person next to me said, “But when is it going to finally settle down? Why is it taking so long?”
I keep hearing these sentiments — and from Egyptians as well as North Americans and Europeans. There seems to be an expectation that when a regime falls to popular protest, an orderly transition to democracy should be expected.
“Well, after all, it took the US 20-30 years to establish order after the revolution,” I said.
“What do you mean?” she asked. After a brief conversation it became clear that this colleague, with a PhD in Arabic Literature, educated in US high schools and universities, had some notion that the US sprang magically into being in 1776 or thereabouts, once the British regime was thrown out. To be fair, she’d never really thought about it before.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
In the Colonial Americas, anti-British protests were taking place as early as 1763, increasing in 1765 with opposition to the Stamp Act, and turning into violent protest (initially only against property) with the Boston Tea party in 1773.
The Revolutionary War itself lasted 8 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 1 day if we use the traditional measure of April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783 (the Treaty of Paris).
But the Revolutionary War didn’t end protest and strife in the US. Shay’s Rebellion (1786-1787) was a violent protest movement that might have become a civil war.
The Articles of Confederation were not revised and replaced with our Constitution until 1789, and resistance to the new federal government’s ability to regulate commerce led to the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794), another incipient civil war (thousands of armed tax protesters versus federal troops) that was only narrowly avoided (thanks to Andre Gallatin, the only anthropologist to have a statue in Washington, DC).
And for decades violent outbursts around US elections were cited by Europeans as evidence of the dangers of popular democracy.
So depending on how you count it, it took the US at least 20-30 years to settle down after its initial uprisings against the British regime (not to mention the fact that we still had slavery, ongoing ethnocide and genocide of indigenous peoples, and women who couldn’t vote).
And the US offers an almost orderly revolution compared to the century of chaos that followed the French Revolution. And both the US and France were in better economic shape than Egypt at the start of their revolutions.
So the notion that Egypt’s transition from an autocratic regime to some kind of stable, more representative form of government would happen in a neat, quick pattern was always wishful thinking. I think it is unfair to hold the Egyptians to higher standards that we in the US hold our own Founding Fathers (and Mothers, and Brothers).