Destructive ambitions, borne by ambitious men, and cruel ironies haunt every revolution. The United States, the political entity created by a revolt dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, permitted slavery until a bitter civil war (eight decades after the revolution) terminated that hideous, unequal practice.
French revolutionaries demanded liberty and equality, but 10 terror-ridden years after Parisians stormed the Bastille, the French republic succumbed to Napoleon Bonaparte's military coup. Hence the term Bonapartism to describe a military-led usurpation of a popular revolt or a military-dominated authoritarian regime.
I'm not suggesting popular revolutions appealing to the human longing for freedom, equal standing before the law, honest government and a fair economic shake don't fail. An utterly failed revolution figures prominently in Arab Spring disaster narratives, and well it should. In 1979, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini decried the shah's tyranny and corruption. In 2013, Iran's dictatorial clique of shabby clerics and secret policemen run a government whose appetite for repression and graft exceeds that of the monarchists they replaced.
In January 2011, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran's first president after the revolution (and living in exile since 1981, when Khomeini toppled him), warned Arab revolutionaries that they faced Iranian-style despotism unless, "despite ... differences from secular to Islamist," they created political organizations with "a common commitment to democratic values and the rights of individuals."
Bani-Sadr lamented that Iranian political organizations of his era "did not commit themselves to democracy. Lacking the unity of a democratic front, one by one they became targets of power-seeking clergy in the form of the Islamic Republic Party, and were pushed aside." Political disagreement between parties is expected, but disintegration into antagonistic factions makes it easy for the would-be tyrants.
Egypt, however, is not Iran. Hosni Mubarak may be gone, but his power base, the Egyptian military, has not collapsed like the shah's did.
Mubarak-era judges still make judicial decisions. The crony economy, which is really a legacy of Gamel Abdel Nasser's semi-Bonapartist regime, still stagnates. Though Egypt held elections, and Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood Islamists won, fair and square, the political and economic battles to secure the revolution had only begun.
Morsi could be a Khomeini in a coat and tie -- that's the secularist fear. I doubt that he is. I think he's narrow, confused and poorly advised, a man who has suddenly learned that complaining is easy but governing is very difficult.
If an Islamic theocracy is his dark agenda, however, he is a hasty and therefore hapless Khomeini. When he -- ambitiously -- rammed an Islamist constitution down the secularists' throats and claimed emergency powers in order to assert control over the military, he split the revolutionary movement into antagonistic factions. This destroyed the moral authority he enjoyed as president of all Egyptians.
Here is the major political lesson to take from Morsi's mistake: The Muslim Brotherhood may have the power to win an Egyptian election, but it is not a big enough power base for governing the country. It's definitely too narrow a base for tackling fundamental economic reform.
Brotherhood extremists won't get it, but moderate Islamists, secularists and the Egyptian military have noticed. Only one other revolutionary lesson (so far) looms as large. In 2011, Egypt's generals saw their troops openly sympathize with the demonstrators' grievances and demands. This certainly curbed Bonapartist ambitions. The generals did not repress the revolt; they let it evolve.
The stage is set for a rapprochement among secularists, Islamist moderates and military leaders who are smart enough to let the evolutionary process continue but willing to jail terrorists. This is a very slow process, one measured in decades. Ask me if it succeeded or failed in, say, January 2033.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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