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February 25, 2011 9:22 am

Reflections on the Revolutions in the Arab World

avatar by David Brog

As a popular uprising overthrew the French monarchy in 1789, freedom-loving people throughout the world celebrated.  Americans in particular – led by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine – cheered the French revolutionaries.  To such celebrants it was self evident that the seeds of the American Revolution were taking root in European soil.

A minority of sober souls skipped the parties.  Of particular note, a Member of the British Parliament named Edmund Burke stepped forward with a famously prescient warning.  Yes, he too admired the spirit of the French revolutionaries yearning for liberty.  But he cautioned them and the world that while they may have “subverted Monarchy,” they had not yet “recovered freedom.”

Burke noted a crucial distinction between the American Revolution he supported and the French Revolution he loathed.  The Americans fully embraced their English heritage of law and morality.  They were not rejecting these traditions; they were actually fighting to recover them.  The French, on the other hand, discarded their legal and moral institutions along with their monarch.  As they executed their leaders and destroyed their churches, they were left with nothing more than flawed human nature to guide them.  The guillotine, Burke argued, was inevitable.

As we celebrate what appears to be the birth of freedom in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab nations, Burke’s warnings should haunt us all.  Not every revolution is the American Revolution.  We may see ourselves in the faces of those protestors who fought for their freedom in Tahrir Square.  But that is no guarantee that those who protested today will be those who wield power tomorrow.

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Indeed, the history of popular uprisings is far from encouraging.  The French Revolution replaced the monarchy with mob rule and then Napoleon.  The Russian Revolution exchanged czarist murderers for Communist mass murderers.

With the limited exceptions of Israel and a nascent Iraq, the Middle East has seen neither the organic development nor successful transplant of democratic institutions.  Thus it should come as no surprise that the region’s popular uprisings have fared no better than those of Europe.  The 1958 revolution that overthrew Iraq’s monarchy paved the way for Saddam Hussein.  The 1979 revolution which deposed Iran’s Shah left a power vacuum eventually filled by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his mullahs.  The 2005 Cedar Revolution which freed Lebanon from Syrian domination has now succumbed to Iranian hegemony through Tehran’s Hezbollah puppets.

And let us not forget that the Mubarak himself was the inheritor of power first won in a prior revolution.  In 1952, Egyptian army officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk, and the Egyptian streets were jammed with celebrants.  In the decades that followed, power passed from Nasser to Sadat and then to Mubarak without free elections.  The crowd that gathered in Tahrir Square was celebrating liberation from their liberators.

In each of these cases, secular middle class folk just like you and me led or at least cheered the revolutions.  Yet they were not the ones who emerged triumphant in the ugly power struggles that followed.  It doesn’t matter who wins the first battle in the revolution.  All that matters is who wins the war.  In the absence of strong institutions to block them, the most ruthless are too often the ones who ultimately seize power.

So what’s the source of our near universal faith that the recent Arab uprisings will follow the script of the American Revolution?   It’s now fashionable to claim that we’ve crossed a great watershed in human history due to the development of online social networks.  We are told that Facebook and Twitter are providing unprecedented power to the people with which they will democratize the world.  Such speculation presumes that the barrier to human freedom lo these many centuries has been inadequate communications.  Burke recognized long ago that the true hurdle lay deeper, in our flawed human hearts.  Democracy is a generational project.  Technology and toys cannot change that.

So yes, let us cheer the forces of liberty in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya.  But let us also recognize that the struggle for democracy in the Arab world has only just begun.  If history is any guide, those at the forefront of this fight may well be among the first consumed by its flames.  It’s far too early to pop the champagne.

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