Ideas are infectious. The source of any particular idea is often unknown. Yet, when an idea grows in the public consciousness, it takes on a life of its own spreading among people and across geographical boundaries. Its applications and products, however, can be starkly different.
In the mid and late-18th Century, ideals like equality, democracy and inalienable rights paved the way for revolutions in America and France – with dramatically different results. The American Revolution produced a Republic in which an individual’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” were protected by a Constitution and Bill of Rights. The French Revolution that commenced slightly more than a decade after its American counterpart, however, took a more insidious turn. In an effort to subdue internal and external enemies to the fledgling Republic, laws were passed limiting dissent. Much like the McCarthy era of the 1950’s in the U.S., those considered dissidents were ostracized and in many cases murdered. The ascension of Maximilien Robespierre to power led to a government sanctioned Reign of Terror to purge France of those at odds with the Revolution. Violence begetting violence, Robespierre himself was executed little more than one year later. The way was paved for Napoleon Bonaparte who became Emperor. The French Revolution’s noble goals of “liberty, fraternity, and equality” led to autocracy and return to their monarchy following Napoleon’s defeat and exile.
Individual liberty, although a driving force in both revolutions, was not their only impetus. People then, just as those today and throughout recorded history, appear to be motivated to press for radical change only when they are affected economically. Oppressive taxation in America and stark poverty among the more populous lower classes in France were certainly strong motivations to seek political change.
Fast-forwarding to the present day, we now witness political unrest in Egypt. Fueled by high unemployment and poverty among its youth and lower and middle socioeconomic classes, discontent with the government of President Hosni Mubarak has led to mass protests in Egypt’s largest cities, Cairo and Alexandria. Bowing to pressure, Mubarak, thirty years in power, has vowed to step down at the end of his current term this September. Yet, it appears that his Presidency may be but days or weeks from ending.
The Egyptian protests come less than a month after political unrest in the African nation of Tunisia. Sparked (no pun intended) by the self-immolation of an unemployed 26 year old Information Technology graduate as a protest against government seizure of the cart from which he was selling produce, the Tunisian protests resulted in the ouster of that nation’s autocratic leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In recent weeks in Egypt, several people have set themselves afire as a means to spur popular action against the Mubarak regime. Whether the revolutionary movements in Tunisia and Egypt result in true liberty for their citizens or military or theocratic tyranny is an open question.
Nonetheless, significant political unrest in two nations on the African continent indicates that perhaps the time is ripe for revolution. With a fragile global economy attempting to recover from a near worldwide meltdown just two years ago, financial hardship, class warfare, and other societal pressures impacting common people may spawn revolutionary movements elsewhere in the world, perhaps even in so-called stable societies. China has taken note of the turmoil in Africa, and its censors have blocked online discussion and sanitized news reports about the Egyptian situation.
Yet, the spread of ideas will not be stopped. Like floodwaters, they will find their way through the most restrictive barriers. Perhaps, citizens of diverse nations throughout the world, like those in Egypt, will hear the call of liberty and walk like a Tunisian.