How To Think about Egypt’s Revolutions
Not all democracies are created equal.


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.

— John Wohlstetter is the author of Sleepwalking with the Bomb. Follow John on Twitter at @JohnWohlstetter.

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.


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