Trust me when I say I’d love to see the next government in Egypt be a democratic and modern one dedicated to freedom and liberty. But I don’t find myself to be particularly cynical when I say I don’t think that will happen at all.
Let’s start with Richard Cohen’s points as a good foundation for why I believe that:
Egypt’s problems are immense. It has a population it cannot support, a standard of living that is stagnant and a self-image as leader of the (Sunni) Arab world that does not, really, correspond to reality. It also lacks the civic and political institutions that are necessary for democracy. The next Egyptian government – or the one after – might well be composed of Islamists. In that case, the peace with Israel will be abrogated and the mob currently in the streets will roar its approval.
It not only lacks the civic and political institutions necessary for democracy, it has no history or tradition of democracy. Given all of that, I’m constantly amazed by those who see what they choose to interpret as “people’s revolutions” in places like Egypt as precursors to a sunny day in the bright light of democracy and freedom.
David Larison points to something Jeane Kirkpatrick once said decades ago after Iran fell to the Ayatollahs.
Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government. Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain-because they make heavy demands on all portions of a population and because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.
As legitimate as the grievances against the Egyptian government are, it is entirely possible that whatever comes after Mubarak and his allies could be dramatically worse. We seem to forget that political change can also be change significantly for the worse, and that empowering a dispossessed majority can lead to economic catastrophe, ethnic and/or religious violence, and contribute to an overall decline in the public’s welfare.
Exactly. And for examples of the point, we once again turn to Jean Kirkpatrick:
In Iran and Nicaragua (as previously in Vietnam, Cuba, and China) Washington overestimated the political diversity of the opposition–especially the strength of “moderates” and “democrats” in the opposition movement; underestimated the strength and intransigence of radicals in the movement….
Many of us simply cannot see past the fact that history doesn’t much support the contention that something “good”, as in a government that will be good for its citizens and a friend to the US, will emerge in Egypt or countries like Egypt. One of the results of oppression and repression are the withering and finally death of democratic institutions – if any even existed to begin with.
And the promise of “free and open elections?” As common and predictable as sunrise. Free and open elections only guarantee you’ll see them once. After that, you’re more likely to see Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Lebanon than you are Canada, the United States and the UK.
It is having those “free and open elections” the second time, and the third, and fourth, etc. that develop the institutions we’re talking about. Holding an election after the overthrow of a government doesn’t make what follows a democracy anymore than writing a Constitution means anyone will live by it or uphold it.
Dictatorships in countries with no democratic traditions or institutions usually beget a dictatorship of a different form when the current strongman is overthrown. And even if the revolution makes an attempt at democratic progress, it usually gets subverted and taken over by the country’s next oppressor as soon as he and his followers gather enough power.
Obviously everyone would like to believe there can be exceptions to the rule and certainly it would be in our, Israel and the region’s best interests if that’s the case in Egypt. But that’s not what we should expect, and it damn sure isn’t that for we should be preparing. Instead, it appears we’re in the middle of repeating our own disastrous history of dealing with such problems. Here’s Kirkpatrick again, talking about Iran – see if you’re feeling a little déjà vu as you read it:
The emissary’s recommendations are presented in the context of a growing clamor for American disengagement on grounds that continued involvement confirms our status as an agent of imperialism, racism, and reaction; is inconsistent with support for human rights; alienates us from the “forces of democracy”; and threatens to put the U.S. once more on the side of history’s “losers.” This chorus is supplemented daily by interviews with returning missionaries and “reasonable” rebels.
As the situation worsens, the President assures the world that the U.S. desires only that the “people choose their own form of government”; he blocks delivery of all arms to the government and undertakes negotiations to establish a “broadly based” coalition headed by a “moderate” critic of the regime who, once elevated, will move quickly to seek a “political” settlement to the conflict.