Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Democratic Revolutions Often Lead Back to Dictatorship

It is easy for Americans to support the ongoing revolution (which is precisely the right word for it) in Egypt. After all, we love democracy (whatever we think that word means), and we love to pull for the underdog, in this case the Egyptian people. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that "the Egyptian people" are, as a monolith, all fighting for the same ideal of liberal-democratic government that we possess. We should also pay attention to the lessons of history, about which Die Zeit editor Josef Joffe reminds us in an essay in The New Republic (here). As Joffe notes, democratic revolutions more often than not lead to anti-democratic ends:
Imagine yourself as a pundit in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, the mother of them all. In August of 1789, you would have celebrated the “General Declaration of Human Rights,” an ur-document of democracy, as the dawn of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Yet, four years later, the Terreurerupted, claiming anywhere between 16,000 and 40,000 lives. In 1804, one-man despotism was back. Except its name was not “Louis,” but “Napoleon.”

In the Russian Revolution of 1917, a halfway nice man by the name of Alexander Kerensky pushed out the Tsar, only to be replaced by Lenin and Stalin. And then, some soothsaying from Berlin in 1918: Who would have thought that the first German republic would be done in by communists and Nazis? Shift forward to Cairo in 1952. A genuine people’s revolt drives King Farouk into exile. Yet democracy takes a fall, too—toppled by Egypt’s officers’ caste. Egypt has been a military dictatorship in civilian garb ever since.

Let’s move to Tehran in 1979. The Shah flees for his life, semi-liberal Mehdi Bazargan officiates for a few month, and then, the iron fist of Khomeinism closes around the country. It is still there 32 years later, prevailing in a long civil war and shrugging off the democratic revolt of 2009.
The fate of democratic revolutions is often the opposite of democracy. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and their advisers, surely understand this better than the media pundits who are so enthusiastic about the Egyptian people's revolution. The Administration seems to realize that the American revolution and the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe were historical exceptions, rather than the rule. The lessons of history must curb a naive presumption that the end of Egypt's revolution will be government of, by, and for the people.

Does this mean the Obama Administration should not support the protesters in Egypt, and should simply sit on its hands? Not at all. What history requires is a sense of modesty about our, or anyone else's, ability to understand, let alone control, fast-moving events on the ground. We need to appreciate that the Egyptian public, like any large group of people, is comprised of disparate interest groups, each of which may have a different end-state in mind. We need to think imaginatively and plan several steps ahead for different possible end-states precisely because history has taught us a democratic revolution by no means ensures a liberal-democratic government.

Hat tip: The Browser.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I actively moderate comments for spam, advertisements, and abusive or offensive language.