Revolution is in the mind. It is a thought before a whisper, a wondering before an assertion, a question before an answer. It evolves into a word or phrase from the tongue, a communication between two like individuals, expanding and gaining momentum until the point of some critical mass has been reached. It is in that critical moment when true Revolution-- the self-sustaining and relentless Revolution that can cut kings from citizens and empires from colonies-- begins to transform the human terrain of a community, a nation, or a world.
Something else takes place in the mind, and it is something that can turn a revolution into ruin, terror, civil war, and even genocide. It is a simple and familiar thing: Fear. Revolution is a time of very profound emotions-- hope, uncertainty, failure, success, and fear. Fear that revolution will go too far, fear that revolution will not go far enough, fear that the revolution will fail and a nation will revert to its old self, fear that the politics of revolution will take a wrong turn or that some terrible and corrupt party or individual will hijack the revolution. These are fears familiar to every revolution, and not at all unique. How groups and individuals react to these fears are the main forces that distinguish one revolution from the other.
Tunisia and Egypt are flooded with fear. Islamist factions fight liberal-secular factions. Those who try to find common ground discover every day just how difficult their task is. Democracy is not a guarantee of stability. Minority factions, feeling like their views are underrepresented (even when they are not) can react violently to a majority rule. People, in the course of revolution, tend to become very attached to their ideas for how the nation and its government should look, so that even when they are legitimately outvoted they protest the end results. In their minds, regardless of majority decisions, their own viewpoints are correct and deserve more attention. Furthermore, the minority vision for the future, in the opinion of that minority, is in constant danger over the course of revolution.
Politics and society change so rapidly over the course of revolutions that people become significantly more defensive of their beliefs. This, also, is a product of fear-- fear that how you understand the world will not matter, that your voice will not be heard, that the Revolution cares nothing for you and your opinions, etc.
It is an excess of this fear that leads to violence. Two million people died in the French Revolution. The revolutionaries constantly feared that troops would march into Paris and end the revolution, so they responded with violence, war, and outright mass slaughter. Reactionaries opposed the revolution on such a fundamental level, and feared it so much, that they raised armies to fight the Revolutionary Guard. Those who convened in Paris in the quiet summer of 1789 envisioned a world of natural and civil rights, where every family had enough bread to get by. It was a simple vision. By 1800 more than two million had been killed and a military dictatorship governed the nation. This happened, if we are to simplify an entire history in one word, because of fear.
Fear cannot exist with optimism. Fear exists when the mind concludes that optimism is unrealistic, and that a treasured dream is in fatal danger. It is a reactionary emotion resulting from some perceived threat or enemy. Fear, in the course of revolution, translates very easily into violence, and often into more permanent situations, such as secessionist movements or the formation of bitterly rival parties.
If we have one piece of advice that history can offer to Egyptians and Tunisians, it is this: Remain optimistic; do not be afraid. There is a durable sense of nationalist cooperation and goodwill in Tunisia and Egypt, and to this point their movements have been largely peaceful. Understand your enemy as your fellow countryman, and your revolutions will remain nonviolent. As long as political enemies understand that they are all revolutionaries, and that they are all interested in the goodwill of their countries and their people, there is nothing to fear. But once fear takes hold, it is a very difficult thing to fight back.
Matthew Bishop is the author of the upcoming "A Comparative Study of the Press in the American and French Revolutions" (Ohio University Press) due for publication on 2 April, 2012.