Egypt’s second revolution in two years resurrects a debate over what role, if any, the United States should play in promoting human rights around the globe. Much of the confusion surrounding this ongoing debate stems from Americans’ tendency to project their own revolutionary experience onto other situations that arise in vastly different cultural and civilizational contexts. This idealism is sometimes imparted to the people living in those other contexts, as in the spring of 1989, when Chinese students camping out in Tiananmen Square erected a statue of the Goddess of Democracy, loosely modeled on the Statue of Liberty, and quoted Thomas Jefferson’s “self-evident truths” from the Declaration of Independence. But the brutal crackdown by the Chinese military crushed their quest for freedom.
To make matters clearer, it is a good idea to address several distinct issues: (1) historical models of revolution, most of which have not led to a happy ending like America’s; (2) a conflation by leaders and the public of the concept of democracy with that of elections; (3) the temptation to try to midwife a modern democracy within the span of the news cycle; (4) the confusion of a desperate struggle between partisans of freedom and partisans of tyranny with a sporting contest that should be conducted under idealized rules of procedural fairness. Sorting these issues out can guide our approach.
The Roman model was an inside coup carried out by the Praetorian Guard. The praetors would remove an emperor who they felt either harmed the interests of Rome or failed to protect the privileges of the praetors.
The British model was that of a protracted struggle between two institutions that both had official legitimacy: the Parliament and the monarchy. The struggle, which began with the English Reformation circa 1534, lasted more than two centuries. It drew in the judiciary, descended into civil war, yielded an authoritarian Parliament after the beheading of Charles I in 1649, and climaxed when the Glorious Revolution of 1688 conferred supremacy upon Parliament and relegated the monarch to ceremonial duties. It was not until well into the 18th century that the office of the prime minister became an official post.
Tragically, that division of labor was not emulated in France. There, a revolutionary cabal hijacked a popular uprising bent on overthrowing the monarchy; the conspirators installed a tyranny after a sanguinary reign of terror. The terror consumed its creators, but the rise of a charismatic leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, postponed democratic progress for a generation.
The 20th century saw the Russian Bolsheviks and the German Nazis seize power. The Bolsheviks did not overthrow the tsars, as the last tsar, Nicholas II, had abdicated. Rather, the revolutionary Bolshevik vanguard ousted social democrat Alexander Kerensky. Kerensky’s Menshevik faction was supported by more than half the populace, versus about one-quarter for the Bolsheviks. A month after what is styled the October Revolution — according to the Julian calendar still in use in Russia then — elections were held for the Russian parliament, the Duma. Of 707 seats, 370 went to the Mensheviks, and only 175 to the Bolsheviks. In December 1917, the Soviet secret police, which later became the KGB, was born. The Duma met once, in January 1918, in Petrograd (St. Petersburg today), but it was shut down by pro-Bolshevik sailors from Kronstadt.
In Germany, the Nazi party won 44 percent of the vote in the 1933 elections. The party made a pact with other factions in the Reichstag, giving the Nazis enough votes to pass the “Enabling Act,” in effect bestowing dictatorial powers on Adolf Hitler and allowing him to unleash genocidal tyranny and a world war.
The 2011 Egyptian “Facebook Revolution” echoed key elements of the Nazi path to power. The Muslim Brotherhood won a plurality of seats in the Egyptian parliament in elections held 16 months after a pharaonic dictator was forced to step aside, by which time interim military rule had established order sufficient to hold the elections. After a few months in power, the Brotherhood, which had allied with other extremist Islamic parties, rewrote the Egyptian constitution in order to consolidate Islamist power and, eventually, to foreclose the possibility of losing power in future elections. But the massive popular uprising that began on June 30, perhaps the largest in world history in terms of public participation, gave the military a chance to oust the Brotherhood. Ironically, the Brotherhood in its infancy, in the 1930s, made common cause with the Nazis. It retains a virulent Nazi ideological tilt, which supplied part of the impetus that created al-Qaeda.
Democracy Is More than Elections
In his book The Case for Democracy, Russian human-rights hero Natan Sharansky made clear that democracy should not begin with elections. Only when a “fear society,” where people cannot safely criticize the government, is supplanted by a “free society,” where people are free to do so, can elections be contemplated. Sharansky also wrote that he thinks democratic countries should prefer dealing with nasty democracies to dealing with friendly dictatorships.
And so, when the January 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories resulted in victory for Hamas, Sharansky rejected the outcome. The election had taken place in what was still — and remains today — a “fear society” by Sharansky’s definition.
What Sharansky might well have had in mind in preferring imperfect democracies to amenable dictatorships was relationships like the one between the U.S. and India for the first 50 years after India won independence in 1947. India joined the “non-aligned” bloc of Third World nations; it bought Soviet military equipment and denounced us in various international forums. But India never fomented virulent hatred of America or the West and never hosted terrorists who attacked us or our allies. In the fullness of time America and India drew closer.
Democracy: Patience Is a Virtue
In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush said of promoting democracy: “The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations.” Too bad the State Department didn’t take his words to heart and decline to support the 2006 Palestinian elections, which were wildly premature by Sharansky’s “free society” yardstick. It can be argued that Egypt today is a relatively free society, at least by Mideast lights. But open dissent worked this time only because some 20 million Egyptians turned out nationwide. A solo critic of the Muslim Brotherhood protesting in Tahrir Square would not have fared very well.
Especially important to keep in mind is that in revolutionary situations the extremists are almost always better organized than the moderates. As the West’s premier Orientalist scholar, Bernard Lewis, has observed, in Muslim lands the Friday sermon at the mosque is a natural focal point for organizing that moderates cannot match. It takes time, often years, for moderates to organize so that they can win — and so that they can govern. America’s revolution sprang from 150 years of practice in the arts of governance while under distant, desultory, and, yes, relatively mild colonial rule.
Contests: Sporting and Unsporting
Western Europe escaped Communist takeover after the Second World War because, among other things, the CIA funded genuinely democratic parties and pro-democracy publications in those countries. In doing so we successfully countered clandestine support from Moscow for the Communist parties seeking decisive political power.
Marquis of Queensbury rules fit sporting contests well. But they have no place in deadly contests for a country’s future — in which its people either win freedom or fall under tyrannical rule. Even if Islamists outside Egypt were not helping the Brotherhood — and they are — we should help moderate forces to prevail there, just as we assisted true democrats in Western Europe during the Cold War.
A Better Way Forward
We need to support not all democracy, but moderate democracy. (We should avoid the label “liberal” because it has multiple connotations — the word has been applied to both 19th-century classical liberals and 20th-century progressives, groups that represent opposing American political poles.) We need to be patient — in revolutionary transformations, as with much else in life, haste often makes waste. We need to place elections at the end of a reform process, not at the beginning. And we need to stop being foolishly idealistic as to process. We must help those who advance freedom, and scorn those who use democratic means to advance totalitarian agendas.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.