02/17/2011 09:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Revelations From the Revolution: Tough Lessons for Human Rights

The human rights community has been applauding the news from Cairo as vigorously as everyone else. Cause alone for celebration is the prospect that the 30-year-old emergency decree under which so many Egyptian were detained without trial might be a thing of the past. No one knows for sure that human rights will flourish under a new government, which is why Ken Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, appropriately warned that "it's not enough for the Egyptian authorities to remove the dictator while maintaining the dictatorship." Early signs are promising, however, that the military has gotten the message.

But the euphoria ought not blind us to a number of important lessons for human rights that the revolution signaled. Some of these are obvious. Despite Malcolm Gladwell's desperate effort in the New Yorker to downplay the importance of social networking to breathtaking political change, the revolution would have been a lot more difficult without Facebook, Twitter and texting. The Mubarak government proved this point decisively when it shut down the internet. For all its drawbacks, as described, for example, in Evgeny Morosov's new book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, online communications are making it harder and harder for authoritarian governments to maintain control over a disillusioned population. True, those same governments can also turn social networking to their advantage, as Iran did by using it to identify and then silence dissenters. But that is no more testimony to the "evils" or limitations of internet connections than the fact that the genocidaires in Rwanda in 1994 used the airwaves to rally Hutus to mass murder is an indictment of the radio. Those who care about democracy and human rights could do much worse than to redouble their efforts to spread online technology and protect internet freedom.

Other lessons may be more difficult for human rights advocates to stomach, however. Here are five of them:

George W. Bush was half right. Though Iraq was in no way the inspiration for the Egyptian revolt, Tunisia certainly was. To the extent that Bush theorized that a democratic foothold in the Middle East might spark other countries to follow suit, he was right. He just failed to realize that genuine revolutions are homegrown, not foreign-imposed.

Democracy is necessary, if not sufficient, to safeguard human rights. Sounds obvious, but no doubt because freedom was Bush's mantra and because democracy is no guarantee that a government will respect human rights, human rights organizations have resisted jumping in bed with the democracy promotion mavens. But it's hard to imagine that Egypt, or anywhere else for that matter, has a shot at a reputable human rights record without getting democracy in place at the same time.

But not all democracies are the same. We in the West tend to have a pretty rigid template for what constitutes democracy: competitive elections surely, but also a variety of other conditions from religious pluralism to virtually unlimited speech. Egyptian democracy may not look like that, particularly if it incorporates both Islamic and secularist interests, and yet it may still be worthy of the name "democratic." Good to remember that making cookies requires both cookie cutters and mixers.

The military makes the difference. It takes nothing away from the courage and persistence of the protesters to acknowledge that in both Tunisia and Egypt, it was the military's refusal to turn on the people that ultimately guaranteed the success of the revolution. Just the opposite happened in Iran. With the exception of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, most human rights institutions have tended to keep their distance from militaries, foreign or domestic. (After all, militaries have historically been among the worst human rights violators.) But that view is shortsighted. We may never know whether the extensive U. S. contact with the Egyptian military played a decisive role in its moderation, but interaction between human rights defenders and security officials ought to be elevated to a higher place in the human rights agenda.

Much is beyond our control. To the extent that the recent revolutions were a result of demographics (lots of young people); economics (lots of unemployment) and the weather (lots of warmth that allowed for protracted demonstrations), those factors are beyond the control of human rights defenders. The best we can do is nurture the soil in the form of things like training in nonviolent social change and the maintenance of international pressure. But, as the little bird said to the farmer who found him lying with his feet straight up in the air and asked what he was doing, "I've heard the sky is falling." "If it is," said the farmer, "what good will your two little measly feet do?" "Well, replied the bird, "One does what one can. One does what we can." Every once in a while with a lot of help from a lot of people, that's enough to make a revolution.

William F. Schulz, former executive director of Amnesty International USA, is president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.