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Understanding Revolution: The Hard Move From An Autocracy To A Democracy

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In countries around the world and across many time periods, people living in oppressive societies have desired change. This desire has often evolved into revolution. Unfortunately, much of the time people revolt in an unorganized manner and are so focused on ousting a current regime that they do not spend resources planning what they will do afterwards. Setting up a government, especially a democratic one, is very difficult, which means that many revolutions succeed only in replacing one authoritarian dictator with another. This has happened throughout history, and is also occurring today during events such as the arab spring.

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For instance, in January of 2011, thousands of angry citizens gathered in Egypt to protest the current dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for around three decades. Many protests began to gear up for a violent uprising, but despite the expectations of many, Mubarak stepped down peacefully after just 18 days of demonstrations and minimal violence, ceding power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Al Jazeera). However, it was unclear who was actually in charge at this point and a number of individuals and groups frantically scrambled to take power for themselves. This began a pattern that many revolutions have in the past. Different groups fight for power after one regime ends, and from all of this chaos emerges a powerful figure who promises an end to the conflict. This person is supported by the public and takes power, sometimes utilizing force in order to do so. Then, they grant themselves more power under a pretense of solving the problems of the nation. In the process, they become a dictator, completing the cycle. Egypt is just one nation that followed this pattern.

Perhaps the most difficult issue to solve in setting up a democratic government is the struggle for power after one regime is toppled. The two main groups that strove for control after the Egyptian revolution in 2011 were the military and the Islamists. Initially, the power was left to the military, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Ahmed Shafik, the previous prime minister, was temporarily given leadership of the cabinet. The military wanted to wait several months for the first election, in order to draft a constitution, but the Islamists, angered by the military’s power at the time and seeking power themselves fought back and succeeded in moving the election date much earlier. After more riots, the armed forces began force protestors to stop gathering, and violence and arrests ensued. Finally, the elections came. However, they were badly organized and came at a time when the military was rather unpopular. Consequently, the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamist group, succeeded in winning nine in ten seats in parliament, limiting the military’s power. Not too long afterwards, the presidential elections began. Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s representative, had won popular support, and it seemed likely he would win. The military, which still held some power at this point, was worried about Morsi’s impending victory, and shut down parliament in order to pass edicts restricting the power of the president and passing more control to themselves. Morsi soon won. So far, it had been a tight battle between the military and Islamists over who would control the future of Egypt, but Morsi’s election was a blow to the armed forces.

Unfortunately, the battle was far from over, and many of the military’s supporters began to rally, sparking more violence. Morsi desired more control, and in order to achieve this removed several prominent military figures from office. He also granted more powers to himself. On December 4th, around 100, 000 protestors marched on the presidential palace in protest. Over the next few months, millions of angry citizens continued to gather and riot. Many had thought that the revolution was over when Mubarak stepped down. Now, the protests were beginning to resemble those that had occured during 2011. The military took the civil unrest as an opportunity to gain control themselves, and in a sudden but relatively peaceful military move, Morsi was removed from office and succeeded by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the leader of the military, who rapidly instated his own cabinet and interim president. Finally, it seemed that an end to the fight between the military and the Islamists was in sight.

Despite this, there was a darker implication. Morsi’s senior advisor Wael Haddara gave a grim statement following the military coup, “If the street becomes the way of removing a democratically elected president one year into his mandate, then no other presidency will survive in the future. ” His prediction that there was no hope of a continuing democracy has held true since. After all of this chaos, the people were unsure who to turn to. Surely, people thought, after such a time, a democratic government would eventually, finally, be established. Sure, dictators in the past, after doing wildly unpopular things still maintained their rule through military power – but even an aspiring dictator would have immense difficulty establishing a rule without popular support, right? Then along came Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He was the current leader of the military, and had recently ousted Mubarak in a military coup. Not only this, but he was also immensely popular. Sisi was already politically powerful, and his military status led people to see him as a strong figure during an uncertain period. Not only that, but he promised to unite the country after the chaos, and prevent the Islamic groups from taking power again, as well as establishing a firm government to end the chaos. Egyptians flocked to him, many calling for him to run for president, in order to make his rule official. A somewhat shoddy “election” was thrown together by what remained of the governing body, which Sisi won with 96. 6% of the votes. Having thus established his leadership, he began a military crackdown on anyone who did not support him, especially Islamists, and an over 1, 000 people were killed.

A similar course of event occurred during many other revolutions. One example is Russia; Joseph Stalin participated in the revolution, and after the death of Lenin, won popular support through propaganda and charisma. After a heated fight for control like that between the Islamists and Military in Egypt, he took power. He is known for killing millions of farmers who refused to conform to his new society after becoming the ruler, just as Sisi ordered the military to kill protestors and Islamists in Egypt. This also occurred with Hitler and Mao, both of whom became powerful by promising to solve a failing nation’s problems, gaining popular support, and once having established their positions, declaring themselves supreme rulers and later killing any dissidents.

The French revolution also followed this pattern – the third estate desired change, and soon got some. However, violence only grew, and the king was killed. After a period of complete chaos and thousands of deaths, Napoleon Bonaparte convinced France he would solve its problems, and became emperor, then dictator. Egypt is now once again ruled by an autocratic government, once again completing this cycle.

Overall, many revolutions in the past have succeeded in toppling an oppressive regime. Unfortunately, many individuals or groups take this as an opportunity to increase their power, and struggle to gain control over the society. Eventually, one individual or group wins popular support by promising to end the chaos, and they then become dictators. This seems to support Thomas Hobbes idea that without a power to keep men in check, they are constantly fighting. In Egypt and many places and times throughout history, the period in between one government and another does appear to be something like what Hobbes describes as a “war of all against all”, with different individuals and groups fighting for power, and much physical violence and death as well. These revolutions shed light on how hard it is to move from an autocracy to a democracy.

John Locke felt that it was the responsibility of citizens to rebel against an autocratic government. It is arguable that it is also in their own interests, which nicely ties together Hobbes’ ideas of man as a selfish creature and Locke’s ideas of man as a creature who uses only what he needs. However, whether it is the responsibility of the people or not to rewrite their social contract, it is still unclear how and whether it can be done. Perhaps the only way it can realistically be achieved is in small increments, for when societies desire too much change, they almost always end up reverting back to the state they were in previously or worse.

18 May 2020

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