Napoleon III in Egypt

Revolutionary Mona Lisa. Cairo, 25 January 2013.

Like many people, I was too optimistic about the June uprising that toppled Mohammed Morsi. I assumed that it would make inevitable struggles for a wider democratization of Egyptian society, and with it, the rest of the Muslim world. This could still be true. However, for the time being, the Empire has struck back. The status quo has found a new public face in General al-Sisi, who has successfully converted anti-Brotherhood energies into fierce nationalism. His rule appears to be very secure. After all, he has ensured the loyalty of all three branches of the Egyptian military (air force, army, security and intelligence) by providing a framework for the future.

Rather than crushing revolutionary energies outright, the military will continue to appropriate them through historical memory of Tamarod. It will also legitimize itself through fighting an alleged “War on Terrorism” of its own creation. Massacres like that which occurred at Raba’a Square were likely purposefully bloody in order to trigger a jihadist reaction. Al-Sisi has also been very careful to cast himself in the role of “Pharaoh,” often at the expense of describing his own policy initiatives. This allows Egyptians to project their own best qualities onto him. Al-Sisi has become the living fantasy of Egypt as it could be. For his supporters, he personifies the vision of ethical utopia that drove the Arab spring in the first place.

This has actually happened before. The hip analysis is that Egypt has stumbled into fascism, however, as I describe elsewhere, this is inaccurate. Fascism refers to something very specific, and using the term too freely is irresponsible journalism. It stunts people’s vision of the future by adding to a sort-of “hopelessness industry,” where cynics reproduce the feeling that the world can never get better. I think it is far more accurate to compare events in Egypt with the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1848 that established the Second Republic.

That revolution came as the result of a wave of spontaneous revolts in 1848 that were very similar to the Arab spring. Similar to Egypt now, the initial overthrow of Louis-Philippe led to the decline of the parliamentary experiment that succeeded him, which was co-opted by a series of increasingly conservative leaders in favour of the status-quo. Eventually, the struggle ended with the rise of Napoleon III, who became both France’s first president and its last monarch (he styled himself as a Prince-President.) Napoleon III had actually won the presidency in December 1848 and was hailed even then as a candidate who, although not desirable, would be sufficient to confront national unrest, economic instability, and prevent a revolutionary push by other forces, then mainly proto-communist factions. Sound familiar? Sprinkle in some liberal insistence about secularism and statements like “Egyptians need a Pharaoh,” and you have al-Sisi.

“The Little Napoleon,” as he was called, eventually came to be France’s absolute ruler as the result of a political stalemate over restrictions on universal suffrage. This gave him the opportunity to present himself as the answer to an exhausted yearning for national order. The National Assembly of the Second Republic had stagnated so greatly that it was reviled by the very populace that established it only a few years earlier. Napoleon III then seized the opportunity to launch a coup d’état on 2 December 1851 that was approved in a later referendum (which is how the Egyptian media is spinning this current election.) He would then rule France for nearly twenty years, adapting strongman rule to have democratic pretenses.

Naturally, we should be wary about comparisons like this. Sisi’s rule has just begun, after all, and the complexities of both situations could have led to any number of leaders breaking through. The overall trends are the point. You have short-lived democratic experiments, which begin with popular dissent, and are then curtailed with widespread approval of a paradoxically equal scale (or greater as was the case with the tens of millions of Egyptians who marched against Morsi.) After some political maneuvering, whether through Napoleon III’s well-timed defense of universal suffrage, or Sisi’s equally well-timed coup after mass demonstrations, the old guard wins the day. It is smart counter-revolution.

So what do we do next? It is too soon to say how the future, whether of a revolution against the Egyptian military, or the eventual emergence of fascist authoritarianism by a nihilistic revolutionary faction, will play out. I don’t believe that things are hopeless, though. After all, revolutionaries did manage to re-group in France, and seized an opportunity provided to them by the Franco-Prussian War to establish a number of communes, most notably in Paris itself. It is likely that democracy will come to Egypt based on the ability of local activists to do just that: refuse to let history be defined by other people, and seize opportunities for democracy to be built as they arise. We can be certain of that. It is just a question of when it will happen, and what form it will take.


Photograph courtesy of Gigi Ibrahim. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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