Ask a stupid question…

For once I’ve some sympathy for William Hague. Asked on the radio this morning if Britain ‘supported’ yesterday’s coup which removed the Islamist President Morsi from power in Egypt, the foreign secretary squirmed and wriggled for while, before coming up with, ‘We don’t support military interventions but we will work with the people in authority in Egypt.’ Well, ask a stupid question and you get a stupid answer.

You can’t support or oppose something when you don’t have a clue what it is. A democratically elected president is under house arrest somewhere. Liberal politicians like Mohamed ElBaradei appear on telly alongside the coup leader, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, to lend him their support. Pro-democracy demonstrators celebrate as the army fans out in force across Cairo. Then Sisi hands over the presidency to a top judge, a shadowy figure from the days of the Mubarak regime which the military helped to overthrow two years ago. Make what you can out of that.

General Sisi announces the suspension of the Egyptian constitution, 3 July 2013, flanked by opposition leaders including former UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei.
General Sisi announces the suspension of the Egyptian constitution, 3 July 2013, flanked by opposition leaders including former UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei.

Forget the 1989 ‘velvet revolutions’ in eastern Europe; Egypt’s revolution looks more like those of France in 1789, Russia in 1917 or China in the 1940s.

Revolutions are a process, not an event. The overthrow of the existing regime is only the start of it. Two heaves in Russia – the first to get rid of the Tsar, the second to establish Bolshevik rule – then a prolonged civil war which lasted into the 20s. In France, Louis XVI was overthrown not by the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but by the coup of 10 August three years later. As in Egypt in 2013, the initial constitutional settlement under Louis, including the elected national assembly, was shoved aside because many people thought the original revolution was being betrayed.

Revolutions are rarely morally unambiguous and rarely set one side clearly against another; they bring to the surface all the competing tensions you should expect in a society in tumult. Revolutions are messy, they go backwards and forwards; sometimes they stumble towards the light, sometimes they fall into darkness. In Russia, one form of autocratic rule was eventually replaced with another. In France, Louis XVI was toppled but it took another 80 years – and a further three Louis of various kinds – before stable republican government was finally established in 1870.

We shouldn’t be too prissy about the military getting involved. Revolutions happen in all parts of society, including the military, and sooner or later the people in charge have to make up their minds. They can stick with the ancien régime, in which case the revolution usually fails, often bloodily. They can split, and we get civil war. Or they can change sides, and we call it a ‘coup’. All successful revolutions are military coups of some sort, whether or not they end with a general addressing the nation on TV adorned with the presidential regalia. It’s usually a decision by someone military that turns a rebellion into a revolution.

Louis XVI clung to power for three years after 1789, but it took another 80 years to establish a stable French republic.
Louis XVI clung to office for three years after 1789, but it took another 80 years to establish a stable French republic.

In Russia, the military first deserted the Tsar, then splintered into factions. It was the crucial support of Bolshevised elements at a particular time in St Petersburg that enabled Lenin to stage his audacious coup d’état on 25 October. In France, Louis was left with so little support among the military establishment by 1792 that, when the Paris ‘mob’ stormed the Tuileries, barely a musket was lifted to defend him.

By all accounts, Morsi sounds like a dreadful leader – incompetent as well as autocratic and opportunistic. Yes, he was elected, but democracy is about more than elections. The winner’s legitimacy depends on governing democratically, not just getting the most votes on a particular day. A lot of Eygptians didn’t think Morsi was governing democratically. Whether they were a voting majority of more than 50% doesn’t matter because Egypt is in a revolutionary, not a democratic, situation. Like Louis, Morsi did eventually offer to compromise, but it was too little, too late.

It’s too early to say if General Sisi’s coup is revolutionary, counter-revolutionary or reactionary. Or just pragmatic. It’s another event in an unfolding and unpredictable story. For now, all we can do is watch and wait, fascinated and apprehensive, but let’s face it, more than a little exhilarated by the whole thing.

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