Free Markets, Free People

Austin Bay


A little history lesson–Egypt and Iran

This, from Austin Bay, does an excellent job of making the point about Egypt that I have been trying to get across in a meta sense. He does it with a look back at the Iranian revolution. It, in many ways, mirrors what is happening in Egypt today. Bay makes the point that in all such revolutions, the key is organization. And unfortunately authoritarians usually do a better job of organizing than do democrats.

A democratic movement will never march in lockstep, but common principles — such as dedication to individual rights — must translate into a common spine to resist, with armed force when necessary, inevitable manipulation, threat and attack by tyrants, terrorists and their vicious partisans.

Recent history bears tragic witness. In the aftermath of their popular rebellion of 1979, the hodgepodge collection of Iranian liberals and nationalists fragmented. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s radical Islamic totalitarians divided the democratic coalition and attacked them individually. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran’s first president after the 1979 revolt, identifies the failure to form a unified democratic front as the Iranians greatest strategic error.

In an essay published in the Christian Science Monitor last month, Bani-Sadr said most Iranian political organizations "did not commit themselves to democracy. Lacking the unity of a democratic front, one by one they became targets of power-seeking clergy in the form of the Islamic Republic Party … ."

I remember the Iranian revolution vividly. I remember Bani-Sadr and the hopes he had for a free and democratic Iran. And I also remember the relentless Ayatollahs and their eventual success at the "divide and conquer" strategy they used. Iran has never gotten off the mat since.

Bay is much more optimistic about the outcome in Egypt than I obviously am.  I think it is much to early to determine that they are headed in the right direction.  Bay says there are hopeful signs.  Good.  But … and there’s always one of those when talking about an authoritarian regime willingly handing over power … we’re so early in the process it’s impossible to tell if the military is really serious about the handover or whether nationalists, secularists, “moderate” Islamists and activists can indeed form a united front or will instead fracture at various points. 

History says “fracture”.

Bay puts the “key” to success in his conclusion:

How the military receives the counter-proposal is crucial. Rejection or ambivalent delay sends the ominous message that there is at least one strong faction of military Bonapartists who prefer pharaoh to freedom. The give and take of sincere negotiations among revolutionary factions and the military, ending in authentic compromise, however, will not only forward the process of building a democratic front but signal the emergence of genuine democratic politics.

You can be guaranteed there are what Bay calls “Bonapartists” within the military.  And in Egyptian history it isn’t unheard of for more junior level officers to resort to violence to take over (Gamal Nasser anyone?).  In the sort of revolutionary atmosphere now prevalent in Egypt it should be remembered that not all revolutionaries want democracy or freedom.  You can rest assured there are power struggles going on within a great number of these factions both within and outside the military.

Given Bay’s quoting of recent history, I’m not sure how he is so optimistic at this early date in the process, but he does seem to think that a united Egyptian democratic front may emerge from all this turmoil.  I remain skeptical and doubtful (even if I’d love to be proven wrong).  And … I have history on my side.

~McQ