Waiting for Robespierre

I can’t believe our luck lately at Trading 8s. My friend and mentor Reese Schonfeld has agreed to contribute this post (and hopefully more to come). Reese was the co-founder, President, and CEO of CNN. Yes, that CNN. (Its ratings have declined ever since he left.) He was also the co-founder and President of the Food Network. Before earning his reputation as “The Most Dangerous Man in Television,” he worked for United Press Movietone News, after which he became Vice President of United Press International Television News. He later founded the Independent Television News Association, the Medical News Network, and the world’s first 24-hour local news station. Like his friend Norman Horowitz, Reese is uncommonly brilliant and kind. — AWO

The leaderless “democratic” Egyptian revolution, which began with so much hope, has now entered its second phase. Even as I write this, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are thronging Tahir Square, celebrating their victory over Mubarak while training their sights on the new military government. Middle-class private entrepreneurs protest the military government’s ownership and control of businesses ranging from the manufacturing of jeeps to the sale of olive oil. They want those businesses privatized.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported, “Egyptian workers and the country’s military chiefs squared off again on Wednesday as strikes and labor protests  spread to the Cairo airport and the nation’s largest textile factory…”  Many of the strikers demand a return to “socialism” when, under former strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser, the state owned all the major industries.  

Until January 30, most Egyptian workers belonged to a government-controlled union, but on that date, a group of unions “declare[d] the creation of the Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions” and included in their demands the “unemployment compensation”, “a minimum wage” with a yearly inflation guarantee, workman’s compensation, social security, health care, housing, free education, and “the right for all retired workers to decent pensions and benefits”. It also calls upon “all Egyptian workers to create civil committees in order to defend their workplace…”

That sounds like U.S. labor union tactics in the 1930s, when sit-down strikes closed automobile factories and the National Guard was called to put an end to them.

But more than that, increasing, and sometimes contradictory, demands from all sorts of Egyptians, is what reminds me of the French Revolution. The fundamentalists called for a return to Sharia law, while The New York Times quotes Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s military, as saying, “Protecting its businesses from scrutiny and accountability is a red line the military will draw… And that means there can be no meaningful civilian oversight.”

Entrepreneurs want a free enterprise private economy, the new union wants workers rights ensured in the workplace, and the military wants to keep absolute control of the economic sectors it now dominates. A half dozen different groups expect differing results from the same revolution, and that’s impossible.

According to The Times, “The protests have sent the economy reeling and defied the military’s attempt to restore to a veneer of the ordinary after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall last week.” Banks reopened briefly and then shut down again. The opening of schools was postponed and the stock exchange still isn’t open. Says a Cairo merchant, “For 30 years, there were no protests at all–well, not really–and now that’s all there is… The situation is a mess.”

Extremists emerge as at least the temporary leaders of many revolutions. In Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks’ slogan was, “No one to the left of the Bolsheviks.”  They triumphed over the more moderate Kerensky and the Mensheviks by exciting the mass of Russians through their extreme demands, including the execution of the royal family. In France, it was the Jacobins, led finally by Maximilien Robespierre, who demanded the absolute removal of the monarchy and the execution of Louis XVI.

In Egypt, the hardliners are just beginning to emerge. The Times reports that the leader of the council of officers now ruling Egypt “has been a strong advocate of government control of prices and production. He has consistently opposed steps to open up the economy…” The middle class is, as always, stuck in the middle, demanding a privatized, free-market economy, while the lower classes, or at least their newly-created labor unions, make stronger and stronger demands for a socialist, government-owned, centralized economy. Hovering over all of these is the demand by Muslim fundamentalists for the imposition of Sharia law.

Which of these groups triumphs is, as yet, undetermined, but I have no doubt that each will become more vociferous and more bullying as instability increases. Revolutions often begin with quarrels over minor issues and then accelerate, as the Robespierres or the Lenins come to the forefront. I’d like to believe that that will not be the case with Egypt, but I am afraid that is the more likely outcome.