Every revolution against autocracy is initially stirring. Who wouldn’t have cheered when Louis XVI was forced to convene the Estates General, or when a liberal provisional government took over from Czar Nicholas, or when the rank and file of the Shah’s army refused to fire on protesters in the streets?
All these inspiring events were mere prelude to catastrophe, making the years 1789, 1917, and 1979 synonymous with the onset of tyranny and bloodshed.
This is why our applause at the imminent political demise of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak should be decidedly provisional. For all his ruinous failings and disgusting crimes, we may miss him when he’s gone.
In Cairo in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously said that we had “pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East — and we achieved neither.” Her statement is now hailed as prescient, but it was wrong by any reasonable standard.
During the first three decades of Israel’s existence, Egypt fought wars with the Jewish state in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Since the beginning of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency in 1981, there have been none. Most of the credit goes to Anwar Sadat, who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 that cost him his life. Yet, a 30-year peace between the largest, most important Arab state and Israel is no small feat of stability.
As for democracy, we didn’t actively trade it for order, but took Egyptian political culture as we found it. The scholar Bernard Lewis writes that in the 19th century, both Tunisia and Egypt, then under Ottoman control, experimented with parliamentary reforms. They wanted to ward off the Europeans but couldn’t halt a “plunge to bankruptcy, disorder, control and occupation.”
After decades of British occupation, the mid–20th century brought the revolution of 1952, and eventually the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Historian David Pryce-Jones calls him “the first Arab to have created a police state,” complete with the “whole grim and bloody apparatus of control through bureaucratic terror.”
Nasser died in 1970, but his system lived on. Egypt has been ruled by emergency decree almost continuously since 1967. The Egyptian police state didn’t exist because of American support (initially it was pro-Soviet); we supported it because it existed, and over time it became pro-American.
Yes, we could have done more to try to force Mubarak to create political space for moderate secularists, but other priorities — from the War on Terror to the misbegotten peace process — were always deemed more important. If both the “neocon” Bush administration and the “realist” Obama administration ended up adopting the same non-confrontational posture toward Egypt, it’s a sign that inherent forces pulled us in that direction.
What now? It is heartening to see Egyptians revolt against the indignities and misery visited upon them by Mubarak. But marches and riots — and even elections — are one thing. Creating a functioning, liberal democracy is quite another, as we’ve learned in the hardscrabble political soil of Lebanon and Gaza.
Egypt is neither of those places. It has no experience with true constitutional democracy, though, and its strongest institution is the relatively Westernized military. We should urge Mubarak to leave without attempting a crackdown that will further radicalize the streets and risk splintering the army (the meltdown of the Iranian army in 1979 was a boon to the ayatollahs). Then, with luck, the military can manage a gradual transition to a more open political system.
Egypt is a reminder that the beginning of wisdom in foreign affairs is modesty. The Bush administration undertook a push for democratization that created a tentative democracy at great cost in Iraq, but otherwise petered out. Weirdly, it may be that the slimy anti-American info-activist Julian Assange, by leaking documents detailing the extravagant corruption of Tunisia’s since-deposed dictator, has inadvertently done more to stoke an Arab Spring.
We know how hopeful it is now in its early days; we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.