As Arab strongmen exit, will democracy really take root?

In Western history, state churches had to be weakened, monarchies discarded, and the 'divine right of kings' forfeited for democracy to grow. Which institutions and traditions are Arab nations prepared to give up? Something more than strongmen have to go if the new is to replace the old.

Something in the new political calculus of the new Middle East does not seem to compute. The overthrow of several “strongmen” does not miraculously nor instantly transmogrify an autocracy into a democracy. For more than a millennium, the Arab world has been addicted to and revered strongmen. Has it suddenly kicked the habit? Wait before you answer that.

Demonstrators’ tweets aside, the emergence of another authoritarian figure or combination of figures seems to be a more likely outcome of the street revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya than genuine democratic governance. Arabs traditionally disdain political weakness. Some vital components of democracy, such as compromise, dissent, and tolerance, can be too easily mistaken for impotence in that part of the world.

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We shouldn’t be surprised that at least 300 people died in the “peaceful” Cairo protests, while hundreds more have been slain in Libya. Historically, human revolutions tend to spawn chaos and violence. Afterward, a Thermidorian reaction sets in when the public becomes exhausted, the excesses of the revolutionaries grow to be discredited, and a new strongman or combination of strongmen merely replaces what was overthrown.

Robespierre’s Terror in the French Revolution was replaced by the tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte. Russia has still not totally shed its Stalinist legacy more than half a century after he died.

Solon of Athens, one of the seven wise men of ancient Greece, clearly understood the nature of despotism when in the 6th century BC he wrote, “Tyranny is a very pretty position. The trouble is that there is no way out of it.”

China divested itself of the genocidal cult of Mao Zedong, but that did not end tyranny nor hatch democracy. There is always some ambitious fellow out there who will declare he is “on the side of history.” And there are always toadies ready to fawn over those who proclaim themselves on the side of history.

Will democracy really take root?

The journalists raving about a new era of democracy for the Middle East often have thin credentials and little regional or historical perspective. Privately, many policy wonks are skeptical that democracy – meaning a culture that honors self-government, not just official elections – will take root in Egypt.

The world is too easily seduced by slogans: The “war to end all wars” in 1914 was followed a generation later by the bloodiest war in human history. President George H.W. Bush’s “new world order” merely shuffled the deck. Next came President Clinton’s “nation building.” Somalia is a failed state.

When Soviet Communism was in its death throes, Western reporters in Moscow were rightly skeptical about Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, understanding that Russia missed the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, each an early incubator of liberal democracy.

It takes long historical cycles – hundreds of years – to nurture the institutions of liberal democracies. Even such thoroughly modern countries as Germany, Japan, Spain, and Italy only joined the fraternity in the past 75 years.

History had to work hard for change

From Magna Carta in 1215 through the American Revolution, proponents of representative government wisely hedged their bets. Then and now, democratic government is far from a historical certitude. The American revolutionaries had the advantage of already being English subjects exercising the rights of Englishmen to better secure the traditional protection of English Common Law.

Still, state churches had to be weakened for democracy to grow. A thousand years of monarchal supremacy had to be discarded and the “divine right of kings” had to be forfeited.

Which institutions and traditions are Arab nations prepared to forfeit? Something more than strongmen have to go if the new is to replace the old. That is what revolutions are about.

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After World War II, the United States labored mightily to build constitutional governments in Europe and Japan. If the people of the Middle East really want democratic government they might begin by scrapping the centuries-old Islamic idea that they have little to learn from Western infidels. They might also memorize Wendell Phillips’s warning, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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