Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers


Sheri Berman in the NYT:

In 1848, workers joined with liberals in a democratic revolt to overthrow the French monarchy. However, almost as soon as the old order collapsed, the opposition fell apart, as liberals grew increasingly alarmed by what they saw as “radical” working class demands. Conservatives were able to co-opt fearful liberals and reinstall new forms of dictatorship.

Those same patterns are playing out in Egypt today — with liberals and authoritarians playing themselves, and Islamists playing the role of socialists. Once again, an inexperienced and impatient mass movement has overreached after gaining power. Once again, liberals have been frightened by the changes their former partners want to enact and have come crawling back to the old regime for protection. And as in 1848, authoritarians have been happy to take back the reins of power.

If Egypt’s army continues its crackdown and liberals continue to support it, they will be playing right into the hands of Marx’s contemporary successors. “Islamists of the world, unite!” they might say; “you have nothing to lose but your chains.” And, unfortunately, they will be right.

It should come as no surprise that Egyptian liberals would implore the military to begin a coup to end the country’s first experiment with democracy just two years after they joined hands with Islamists to oust an authoritarian regime. In the early stages of a country’s political development, liberals and democrats often don’t agree on anything other than the desirability of getting rid of the ancien régime.

Establishing a stable democracy is a two-stage process. First you get rid of the old regime, then you build a durable democratic replacement. Because the first stage is dramatic, many people think the game is over when the dictator has gone. But the second stage is more difficult.