Times were desperate in Petrograd, Russia in February of 1917. The winter was bitterly cold. Food was scarce. Wood for heating was almost impossible to find. The First World War dragged on interminably, and the Russians, allied with Great Britain and France, were faring poorly against the Germans on the Eastern Front. Army officers assigned to the city began to mingle with the crowds calling for an end to the war and a change of government.
February 23, 1917 was International Woman's Day. Women in the textile plants in Petrograd took advantage of the occasion and streamed into the streets demanding bread and an end to hunger. They surged to factories employing men and insisted that they join them in their protests. The streets filled with spontaneous protesters calling for change. Ominously, neither the police nor the Army intervened.
The next day the demonstrations continued. And the next. Sporadic attempts were made by isolated police and military units to stop the protests, but gradually even these listless efforts faded away. Instead of protecting the Tsar and his regime against the people, increasingly the police and the troops went over to the opposition. Even the feared Cossacks, for so long the terror of the people, refused to fight.
By Sunday, the 26th of February, the situation was completely out of hand. The President of the Duma, the elected assembly created by the Tsar some years earlier, sent a frantic message to Tsar Nicholas himself.
"Situation serious. Anarchy in the capital. Government paralyzed. Transport of food and fuel in full disorder. Popular discontent growing. Disorderly firing in the streets. Some military units fire on one another, Essential immediately to order persons having the confidence of the country to form new government. Delay impossible. Any delay deadly. I pray to God that in this hour the blame does not fall on the crown."
Monday evening the Tsar received another telegram warning him that only a fraction of his troops remained loyal. By Tuesday, mutinous troops controlled the streets of Petrograd. Looters roamed the city. Tsar Nicholas made a final half-hearted effort to enter Petrograd and take charge of the situation. He never made it. Ninety miles from the city the train was forced to reverse direction when it ran into rebel forces holding the rail line.
Three hundred years of Romanov rule were ending. Tsar Nicholas abdicated the throne, passing the title of Tsar to his brother, who refused to accept it. Power devolved to the Duma, the elected assembly. Russia, the most autocratic of European nations, had become a liberal democracy. The United States Government hailed the event as a fitting successor to the American Revolution and became the first nation in the world to formally recognize the new Russian government. The American Ambassador to Russia characterized the revolt as the realization of the American Dream.
On March 3, 1917 the New Provisional Government formed by the Duma issued an announcement laying out the principles, which would guide it in its conduct. Amnesty was granted to all political prisoners. Russians were given the right to freedom of speech, press and assembly. All restrictions based on class, religion and nationality were eliminated. Universal suffrage was instituted. All future elections would be conducted by secret ballot.
After centuries of darkness, Russia had emerged into the light as one of the most enlightened, progressive regimes in the world. In many respects, in fact, the reforms instituted made Russia a more democratic and egalitarian society than either France or England. It was, dare we say it, a true Russian Spring.
It was also, of course, not to be. The Duma was unsuccessful in addressing the pressing concerns of the populace that lead to the February Revolution. Food and fuel remained scarce. The war continued. Troops at the front deserted in droves. Russians were in most ways as desperate now as before the Tsar had fallen.
In October 1917, the Bolsheviks took advantage of the Duma's weakness and public discontent and staged a second revolution. Despite their name, which means majority in Russian, the Bolsheviks did not represent anything like the majority of Russians. They were, however, committed, disciplined and organized.
Bolshevik troops moved out of their barracks early on the morning of October 25, 1917. Meeting no organized resistance, they seized control of the bridges in the city, the main telegraph office, the post offices, the railroad stations, the Central Bank and the power stations. Later in the day Lenin announced the overthrow of the government. Early on the 26th of October Bolshevik troops arrested all the ministers of the Provisional Government. Trotsky declared that the Provisional Government had ceased to exist.
By 1922 the Soviet Union had formally been created. Soon thereafter the dead hand of Stalinism descended, crushing beneath it any hope of freedom or liberty. It would be seven decades before Russian would have a chance to regain what it lost in October 1917.
Revolutions are not controlled and dominated by those groups, which are most to our liking. The organizations, which emerge from fluid, anarchic situations, seize power and remain in command, are those, which are most organized, most disciplined and best positioned to exploit the underlying societal, economic and political pressures. In 1917 in Russia, it was the Bolsheviks who had the iron will and determination required to channel the people's dissatisfaction and grab control of the state. In Egypt, in 2011, it may well be that the Islamists will fill that role.
In the first round of Egypt's post-Mubarak parliamentary voting two Islamic parties received 60 percent of the votes. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party took fully 40 percent of the vote. Another 20 percent of the vote went to the Salafi Al Noor Party.
To put this in perspective, in this scenario, the Muslim Brotherhood is the moderate force. Their platform calls for making Sharia the law of the land in Egypt, ridding the Middle East of "foreign imperialism" and reevaluating the Camp David accords, which constitute the basis of peace between Egypt and Israel. That is nothing next to the positions espoused by the Salafi movement and Al Noor.
The Salafi goal is to return the entire Muslim world to a mythical state of purity that they believe existed in the first centuries after the birth of Muhammed and the spread of Islam. In this "Caliphate", Sharia will be the basis of all law. Social contact between men and women will be highly restricted. Non Muslims will be considered second class citizens if they are tolerated at all. Muslims who are not Salafis will be considered apostates and will be subject to physical violence. It was this belief, which was used to justify the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
This is the exact goal of all radical Islamic Sunni terrorist groups, including Al Qaida.
As Salafis have gained strength in Egypt, fatwas, religious rulings, by hard-line Salafi preachers have foreshadowed what may be in store for an Egypt controlled by an Islamist government. Recently, one Salafi religious leader issued a fatwa prohibiting Muslim women from wearing high heels because they are a source of seduction for men. Another cleric issued a fatwa directing that Muslims were prohibited from voting for Christian candidates or for any Muslim candidate who was not sufficiently devout. Prominent Salafi leader Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat noted that democracy itself was apostasy, that is in direct contravention of the Koran. Salafi cleric and potential presidential candidate Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail said he is against mingling of the sexes in public places.
The economic and social situation in Egypt remains chaotic. The unemployment rate among young people, particularly young men, is catastrophic. Income levels remain desperately low; most Egyptians exist on less than $2 a day. The cost of food and of energy continues to rise. Disparities in wealth are huge. The population is exploding and most of the growth is occurring in Egypt's crowded, filthy slums. Nothing that the interim government has done since the fall of Mubarak has positively impacted any of this. Egyptians remain unhappy and resentful, and the Islamists are taking advantage of this to forge organizations and gather support.
Out of this desperate situation, as voting for a parliament proceeds, will eventually come a new government. It may be that somehow that government will look like what we wish it to be, a liberal, secular regime seeking positive relations with Israel and the West. It is far more likely, however, that what emerges will be a regime controlled by hard-line, ultra-conservative Islamist groups who will seek to transform Egypt into an Islamic Republic. We may be waiting for good news from Egypt. We may just be waiting for Egypt's Bolsheviks, the Salafis, to seize power and to ensure that the "Arab Spring" of 2011 ends the same way the "Russian Spring" of 1917 did.