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The Politics of Fear

Marlyn Tadros
marlyntadros@gmail.com
2016 / 1 / 19

Traditionally, fear had been a key sentiment that played on people’s minds and brought them in line unquestioningly. Negative feelings of xenophobia, hostility towards others with different opinions, claims of conspiracies, mistrust and paranoia of any otherness are typically stoked in such a climate.

The French Revolution

Immediately following the execution of Louis XVI, the French Revolution created The Law of Suspects (Sept. 17, 1793) defining those who could be arrested for “treasonable” activities. The law was enforced by the Revolutionary Tribunal that spread what came to be known as the Reign of Terror. Maximilien Robespierre’s symbolized that reign with his fellow revolutionary Danton who once said ‘let us be terrible in order to stop the people from being so.’ Robespierre a radical leftist who had once believed in human dignity and had therefore endeared himself to the sans-culottes – the poor working classes whom he claimed to represent became wary of counterrevolution to the extent that it changed his chore ideology into one of repression and violence against opponents. The fear of counter revolution was not an imaginary fear for indeed there was a counterrevolutionary uprising in the Vendée (Oct.–Dec., 1793), suppressed with a heavy loss of life (1). By 1793, an increasingly dictatorial government was “promoting denunciation and repression, while surveillance committees were everywhere rooting out ‘suspects’ and purported traitors.” (2)

Two Books

To help us understand the current Egyptian regime and people’s hyper nationalism and mood, I looked at two new books that have been published this year on fear and terror during and following the French revolution. The first is The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution by Timothy Tackett and Phantom Terror: political paranoia and the creation of the modern state, 1789-1848 by Adam Zamoyski.

In The Coming of the Terror, Tackett examines how the culture of fear brought about a spiral of repression during which tens of thousands of its own citizens, many of whom were also revolutionaries, were executed. Such terror reigns are historically explained as defensive responses to violent counterrevolution where conspiracy theories abound in this volatile environment. While the author does not speak of Robespiere and Danton, he speaks of ordinary citizens’ sentiments and manipulation.

Tackett notes that

“All major revolutions are invariably destabilizing, because they involve a process of tearing down and transition, with lengthy periods of interregnum when the old regime has been discredited but the new is still struggling to assert its legitimacy. The task can become even more daunting with the emergence of counterrevolutionary movements that rapidly evolve into condiment true believers, a great many others are plagued by doubts, uncertainty, and mistrust.”

One of the more insightful commentary on revolutions is Tackett’s assertion that people’s “collective emotions are part and parcel of the phenomenon of rumor – its generation, its propagation, and its transformation within the society. In times of great stress such rumors can transcend sociocultural class and cross between emotional communities that are normally separate. Thus, the fear, suspicion, and anger of the masses can play a significant role in elite revolutionary behavior.”

Zamoyski in Phantom Terror on the other hand noted that throughout Europe the French Revolution ‘news of the fall of the Bastille .. had had an electrifying effect as it travelled across Europe…’ This climate “created a culture of control of the individual by the state. In the more repressive states, it led to the alienation of generations of young people, resulting in the growth of real terrorist movements in the second half of the nineteenth century.” This also stultified even economic growth. In Austria, for example “the threat of the grand conspiracy was used to justify the preservation of an order which acted as a brake on economic development, as did the ruinous expenditure on the army needed to maintain it.” Whereas in Russia, “attempts to mould society into an obedient instrument of the state had the effect of driving thinking young people into opposition – moral, intellectual and artistic at first, murderous from the 1860s onwards.”

While fear of conspiracies have been justified in many cases in those countries, much of it was also figments of the imagination – perceived terrors that unnecessarily led to the curbing of rights, freedoms and liberty.

Egypt today?

Regarding Egypt, I am not quite sure whether the State has a paranoia of real and perceived threats and conspiracies,´-or-whether it is deliberately exporting such fear to the people only to deliberately stifle rights and freedoms and curb opposition of any kind. Regardless of the reason, the spread of paranoia and hyper-nationalism is a worrisome development in Egypt’s much touted 25 January revolution.

*Note: both books were reviewed in the May 2015 issue of the Atlantic which drew my attention to them.

References:

“Reign of Terror.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2015. Retrieved August 29, 2015 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-ReignTer.html
Tackett,T. (2015) The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution Harvard University
Zamoyski , A.(2015). Phantom Terror: political paranoia and the creation of the modern state, 1789-1848. Basic Books.




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