|American revolution gave birth to a regional hegemon that developed into a global super power [GALLO/GETTY]
How does the revolution in Egypt compare with the American Revolution? There is no comparison. It is more impressive and more important. So far.
In the United States, the American Revolution is sacred history. As a result, Americans tend to associate its slogans and symbols with the whole concept of revolution. If the peculiarities of this habit help prevent Americans from recognising the significance of events in Egypt, both countries will pay a price.
For the leaders of the American Revolution, colonial North America had been a place of social mobility and prosperity. In a European context, the American patriots belonged to the minor gentry class.
No European society allowed members of the minor gentry the prominent roles in political life that the British colonies had offered Americans. When they rebelled against Great Britain, over taxes and in the name of freedom, they were the freest and least taxed people in the western world.
As to the much-noted hypocrisy of slaveholders rebelling in the name of freedom, the English writer Samuel Johnson gave the line for the ages, when he asked, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"
In contrast, the people of Egypt for decades lived under a cruel military dictatorship. The Mubarak regime almost destroyed a once vibrant Egyptian middle class. The Mubarak family, according to recent reports, accumulated as much as $70bn worth of assets, held mostly in foreign banks and real estate. In contrast to the free and prosperous American revolutionaries, Egyptian resistance broke out from an impoverished and oppressed people.
The stakes in Egypt were also higher. In 1776, the year of the American rebellion against Great Britain, under three million Americans lived in the colonies.
Workers in Helwan and Quesna and other parts of the country joined demonstrators in Cairo to fight for the future of 83 million Egyptians. The courage of Egyptian protestors has riveted tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people in the Maghreb, the Levant, the Persian Gulf, and around the world. Despite invitations and an invasion, the American patriots could not even convince Canada to join them.
The Egyptians have not only risen further and for a better cause, but at greater risk. Eighteenth-century warfare was a comparatively civilised affair.
With Great Britain, the patriots faced a distant opponent distracted by political and military events on the European Continent and divided about what to do with their rebellious cousins.
Egyptians, on the other hand, marched into the maw of a multi-billion dollar police state. Their only protection came from the cameras and their numbers. The American patriots would never have prevailed without the support of the French navy, whereas no outside force, neither a United Nations declaration nor any NGO, supported the Egyptians.
Despite these significant differences, there is one aspect of the revolt in Egypt that ought to resonate with Americans’ reverence for the American Revolution.
The French revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks, both of whose revolutions Americans opposed, sought to transform the world order.
The Egyptians have articulated no such ambitions. Rather, more like their eighteenth-century American predecessors, they are asking for simple political reform. There can be no doubt they deserve it.
The Egyptians may have chosen a more righteous fight than did the American revolutionaries, but the American patriots also look better coming out of their revolution than they did going into it.
Paradoxically, it was the significant freedoms that eighteenth-century American patriots had enjoyed that helped prepare them for the challenges that follow revolutionary victory.
Eighteenth-century New England lawyers and Chesapeake planters proved skillful and adept at governing, constitution-writing, and state-building. They were good at these things, in part, precisely because they had not been oppressed.
How will the Egyptians fare in the process of building a representative government responsible to the rule of law? It remains to be seen. But they have the opportunity, as well as the world’s attention.
Sam Haselby is a visiting assistant professor of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. From 2007 to 2010 he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and he has recently finished The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, 1776-1832, a book about religion and nationalism in revolutionary and early republic America.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.