A Stormy Summer for Democracy: The Arab Spring at Risk

07/08/2013 06:39 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2013
  • Benjamin R. Barber Democratic Theorist; Author, 'If Mayors Ruled the World' (Yale University Press); Founder, Global Parliament of Mayors

The Arab Spring, astonishing and admirable, has been dogged from the start by often unrealistic expectations, a growing and deep confusion about the conditions that enable democracy, and a persistent lack of patience not only by participants but by busybody onlookers trying to jumpstart other people's freedom march. The spirit of the original uprisings was rooted in compelling historical necessity and powerful moral conviction. But history is not always predictable and morals a less than sufficient guide for politics.

It is the politics of actual democracy that has generated difficulties: for democracy and revolution are not the same thing and not necessarily even causally related. In this stormy summer of an Arab spring in distress, it is vital to review some historical lessons. To be sure, there is no turning back -- we can't rewind history -- but going forward demands that we understand just how contradictory and uncertain has been the path of earlier democratic revolutions. Here are eleven lessons history teaches:

1. Revolutions do not produce democracy: they produce chaos -- instability, anarchy, violence. Renewed tyranny is as likely an outcome as liberty. France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Iran in 1979 were all nobly inspired rebellions, but not one issued in democracy. Even in the United States, a revolution in the name of independence produced eighty years of a slave republic and a bloody civil war before it produced anything resembling liberty and justice for all men (let alone women).

2. Violence is revolution's friend but it is democracy's enemy. Overthrowing dictators can breed not disdain for dictatorship but reverence for violence. Libyan insurgents murdered Gadaffi in righteous rage; then they did the same to the American Ambassador in Benghazi. Egyptian revolutionaries threw out Mubarak and his military backers and elected Morsi; then they enlisted the military to help them throw out Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood appointees, their democratic legitimacy notwithstanding. Who will be the military's next victim? Syrian rebels now hope to take out Bashar al-Assad, but will depend for success on Jihadists who display little more love of democracy than the regime they seek to bring down. This is not to deny violence is often an indispensable midwife of liberty, only to say as a result liberty is often stillborn.

3. Elections are crucial to democracy but in many ways the least important of its founding conditions. It is not first but second elections that count, and Egypt has already failed that test. It is, to be sure, a two-way street: a majority vote brings legitimacy to governance but does not by itself guarantee that the governors will rule legitimately. The losers in elections must wait until the next elections to see their grievances addressed, but the winners may forfeit their legitimacy by refusing to acknowledge the rights and needs of those who voted against them. You can win an election with a bare majority or even a robust plurality, but you can govern only with the consent of those you vanquish in the polls. This was the lesson the Brotherhood failed to learn in Cairo.

4. Democracy is built bottom up, not top down. It depends on competent citizens as much as on competent politicians, on a free and plural civil society as well as a legal constitution, on a respect for law no less than a passion for ideology. As in other revolutions, the uprisings of the Arab Spring were led by passionately motivated seekers of freedom but in countries largely without citizens. That is the conundrum of democracy: those who struggle for citizenship must have the virtues of citizens to win the struggle. Without liberty there can be no citizenship, but only citizens know how to win and sustain liberty.

5. Democracy depends on a citizenry, individuals who put the public good before the party good, who see themselves as incarnating a republican "we" not as a collection of special interest '"me's." Morsi and his Brotherhood disciples imagined their electoral victory earned them the right to govern in the name of their interests and principles. But their victory actually earned them only the right to govern in the name of Egypt's common goods, call it the public weal. When they refused to understand that, they forfeited much of their legitimacy.

6. The Brotherhood is reading the lesson of the coup as teaching that "democracy is not for Muslims." They are right, but not in the way they think. Democracy is also not for Christians or Hindus; not for Tea Party Libertarians or radical socialists. Democracy is for citizens, and citizens are defined by what they share not what divides them, by the common ground on which they stand, not the rival turfs from which they campaign. Like every other group, Muslims have every right to campaign for democratic leadership. But when they win, they must govern as citizens around what they share with winners and losers alike.

7. A coup is a coup is a coup. A "people's coup" is also a coup, otherwise known as mob rule. Law without elections (enlightened despotism) may be benevolent but is hardly democratic; elections without law may be democratic but are little more than demagoguery. Both are needed. We tend to call a coup what happens when our enemies overthrow our friends, not what happens when our friends overthrow our enemies. Which is why we can safely predict that the Obama administration will deceive itself into thinking the violent ouster of Morsi is not a "coup" and the U.S. can continue to offer aid.

8. Democracy takes time and its establishment calls for infinite patience. It often demands the work of generations to succeed. But modern media and meddling foreign nations try to engineer lightning outcomes that suit their own interests. The victims of prolonged tyranny are understandably impatient: the call for patience feels like a mandate for more suffering. Yet unless wise local leadership counsels and embodies patience (as Mandela did in South Africa), the pursuit of democracy will be righteously precipitous - and correspondingly unsuccessful.

9. Speak not of democracy but of democracies: for there are many versions of democratic life and no people has a monopoly on its character. Speak not of the road to democracy but the roads to democracy: for there are as many paths to liberty as there are peoples and cultural histories. You cannot win freedom by imitating another country's constitution or having friends Fed-X you their Bill of Rights. A people must generate their own form of self-government. There are written and unwritten constitutions, parliamentary and presidential systems of executive leadership, multi-party and single party forms of governance, none are privileged; The Indian village community, the Russian workers' council ('soviet'), the African tribal fraternity, the Afghan Loya Yerga (national tribal council) all have democratic resonances and offer generic versions of the democratic experience.

10. The role of the military in emerging democracies is critical. It is often the best educated, most professional and competent institution in a developing society. It is thus easily tempted into thinking it must govern. But it is only a reticent military acting as a non-political guarantor of democratic politics that strengthens rather than undermines democracy. Generals need to imitate the Roman warrior Cincinnatus and retire from the battlefield on which they have helped secure a new republic's fortunes (as General Washington's did after the American Revolution). The Egyptian army will have to imitate the Turkish army in recent years, when it secured and tempered moderate Islamic governance without insisting on governing. If a free people get in the habit of relying on the army to assure their freedom, it will not be long before they are without their freedom. The generals who cashier the government your opponents elect when that government no longer pleases you will not hesitate to cashier the government you elect, when it no longer pleases them.

11. The final lesson we can draw from history -- the lesson of all lessons-- is that tomorrow never resembles yesterday, and that history's lessons must be taken with a grain of salt. The only certainty is uncertainty. All the lessons laid out here are iron-clad, until they are not. Because the true meaning of history is than humankind has a role in shaping it: which is why history is ultimately the story of liberty.

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