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What Italy's history suggests for US policy in Middle East

March 17 isn't just St. Patrick's Day. This year, it's the 150th anniversary of Italy as a modern state. Those who don’t believe that Egypt or others in the region can become prosperous democracies should consider the Italy's history – and what it suggests for US policy in the Middle East now.

By Jim Rosapepe / March 17, 2011



College Park, Md.

March 17 isn’t just St. Patrick’s Day. This year, it’s the 150th anniversary of Italy as a modern state. Not many Americans will be paying attention. But we should.

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Those who don’t believe that Egypt, or other countries in the Middle East, can become a prosperous democracy need to take a deep breath – and consider the history of Italy.

Until the mid-19th century, Italy was not a nation-state. Italians were split between Austria, the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples, the Vatican, and city-states. While Egypt didn’t emerge as an independent nation until 1954, Italy was more fortunate: It unified 150 years ago this week.

People-powered democratic revolts - do they last?

But Italian democracy of the late 19th century wasn’t pretty. There were no Thomas Jeffersons or George Washingtons, America’s romanticized founding fathers, in Rome or Naples then, as they are not in Cairo or Alexandria today. But political pluralism was. Religious zealots, socialists, big business, monarchists, militarists, farmers, and intellectuals were all there, just as they are in Egypt today.

Zigzags of building a stable democracy

For a time in the first years of the Italian republic, the militarists were ascendant, adding colonies such as Libya and expanding borders. And then for two decades in the early 20th Century, the fascists – the black shirts of Benito Mussolini – were in charge.

The fascist era between the World Wars was a classic chapter in the zigzag story of building stable democracies. Mussolini rose from the failures of a weak democracy and ended his reign dead, at the hands of his own people.

Then, after World War II, with the active support of the United States, Italy got its democracy back on track. Again it was not pretty.

US anti-communist intervention

The 1946 elections produced a coalition government between the Vatican-allied Christian Democrats, the Soviet-backed Communists, and the Socialists. Under pressure from the US, the Communists and their allies were pushed out of the government in mid-1947, and the April 1948 elections became the showdown. Would Italy remain allied with the West? Or would the Communists win an election and then seize dictatorial power?

America’s fear of “one man, one vote, one time” in Italy was as deep in the winter of 1948 as it has been regarding Egypt this winter.

In 1948, the US responded by unleashing the CIA to fund the Christian Democrats and other anti-communist parties. Ten million letters are said to have been generated from Italian Americans urging their relatives in Italy to vote for the anti-communists. Whether or not this intervention was decisive, the results were. The Christian Democrats won 48 percent of the vote, their best showing before or since, while the Communist/Socialist coalition won only 31 percent.

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