A cruel joke quips that the shortest book in the world must be the “Arab World’s Manual on Democratic Procedures.” Protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square just added another page to that text.
In the newest paragraphs, protesters demolish the lazy assumption that Arab peoples are predisposed to reject that which the previous generation of Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans fervently embraced: the right to freely choose political leaders and to be treated as more than underage minors. Just when Beijing’s sirens had begun to sing enchantments about the authoritarian model of governance, comes a reminder that political freedom is not a Western imposition, but a universal aspiration, and that leaders who ignore this fact live dangerously. I would like to emphasize four points.
It’s the end of the first act. Defeating a dictator is not the same as building a democracy. Mubarak’s fall is the opening to a drama whose end we cannot even fathom. Multiple dangers yet abound. It remains to be seen whether the Egyptian military’s decision to abandon Mubarak to his fate was simply a crass attempt to scapegoat him in order to preserve Egypt’s authoritarian structures, or a genuine gesture to open a transition towards a democratic system, where its power would necessarily be curtailed. Should the military opt for the first route, or if it succumbs to internal divisions, it will likely precipitate the violent explosion that has thus far been avoided.
As my colleague Kenneth Pollack pointed out in a Wall Street Journal piece, there is also the ugly habit of revolutions escaping from the control of those who made them, and in turn generating unpredictable results. Those who overtook the Bastille could not have anticipated the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Nor could those who celebrated the Sandinista victory in Managua in 1979 imagine that all would end with the crass venality of Daniel Ortega and his revolutionary peers.
While it is encouraging that Islamic fundamentalists have had little to do with what transpired during the past few weeks in Egypt, there is no doubt that they will still try and hijack the transition process. Here the calm and realism of Egypt’s democratic actors will prove essential: succumbing to a moment of drunken democratic ecstasy and writing off the army as part of the ancient regime, or demanding that elections be held immediately could have calamitous consequences for Egypt.
Osama’s shares fall. Much has been said to argue that rather than a sign of an irreducible conflict between Islam and the West, Islamic terrorism is a symptom of a civil war between reactionary and modernizing forces, between radicals and moderates within Muslim civilization itself. If this is so, we have just witnessed the noisy awakening of the Arab world’s moderate voices, hitherto intimidated by the violent few. It is clear now that peaceful ways to abolish stifling authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East do exist.
A few weeks of peaceful protests have generated the political change in the Arab world that years of suicide bombings and the killing of innocents could not. Nestled in his cave, Osama Bin Laden will tremble on hearing of it. And the Palestinians will take note. Because what is good for dealing with dictatorships is good for confronting occupations too.
Being number one ain’t what used to be. It was Egypt’s people and army that broke Mubarak’s back, not his main external ally and patron, the United States. Washington’s response to events in Cairo was a symphony of inconsistency, which in some ways recalled its reaction to the 2009 political crisis in Honduras. This speaks to the sheer speed of events, many times magnified by the power of social networks, as well as to Washington’s ambivalence toward democracy when it interferes with national security interests.
What happened in Cairo and in Tegu-cigalpa underscores Washington’s increasingly limited capacity to determine the course of political events, even in countries tightly linked to it. Does this mean that it has been reduced to a mere bystander in the world? No. The proof of Washington’s relevance lies in the paradoxical tribute paid to it in Tahrir Square, where many demonstrators reported feeling betrayed by the United States’ ambivalence toward the protests. Nobody expressed disappointment in China or in India or in Russia or in Brazil. They expressed disappointment in the United States alone. Let us not forget: for most people in the world the only international support or rejection that matters is Washington’s.
No predictions please. Mubarak’s downfall has given way to an exuberant wave of predictions about other regimes collapsing under the weight of their masses. Some see the Middle East’s dictatorships falling one after the other like dominoes. Others see the prairie fire spreading to Latin America. What we have just seen is not, however, easily transplantable. It requires a lethal combination: a terminal lack of political legitimacy, the closure of electoral avenues, a relaxation of the repressive apparatus, and a critical mass of population with a minimum of access to information about the world as well as digital technologies. Few cases manage to meet those four conditions.
In Latin America there is not a single government that comes close to suffering the radical lack of legitimacy seen in Egypt. Even Venezuela and Nicaragua exhibit remarkably robust rates of support for democracy and satisfaction with it. Until further notice, the only channel for toppling governments and gaining legitimacy in Latin America consists in the dull exercise of counting ballots.
But then again, you never know. Cuba’s Raúl Castro, in particular, would do well to sleep with an open eye.
What happened in Egypt is nothing short of historic and deserves to be celebrated. But we should celebrate with cautious enthusiasm. Perhaps it is worth recalling that 32 years ago, precisely on Feb. 11, the last vestiges of the hated Shah’s regime were toppled in Iran amid tumultuous joy, only to give way to something far worse. This we know: there is nothing inevitable about the march of freedom.