The mounting pro-democracy protests in Egypt against the 30-year tyranny of Hosni Mubarak are an encouraging development in the wake of Tunisia’s ousting of its own long-time autocrat, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, earlier this month. It is tempting, indeed altogether proper, to hope for “people power” changes of governance across the autocratic Arab world. But we must proceed with caution: by encouraging genuine and lasting reform, as opposed to what could end up as fleeting revolution and a possible return to tyranny in a different guise. History, distant and recent, can serve as a guide.
As Edmund Burke cautioned more than three centuries ago, reform is a much more effective way to bring about positive change than revolution. This doesn’t mean the ruling powers cannot be replaced, but it does mean that the system as a whole, unless it is shown to be utterly ineffectual and rotten, needs to be modified rather than replaced outright. Think the Glorious Revolution of 1688 rather than the inglorious French Revolution of 1789.
We learned this lesson the hard way in Iraq in 2003, when almost every vestige of the Ba’ath administration was replaced wholesale, with the resultant dearth of knowledge and expertise proving catastrophic for the country’s subsequent development. Enthusiasts for wholesale revolution across the Middle East need to bear this in mind. Though the citizens of Tunisia and Egypt may be better off with a change of leadership, this principle does not necessarily hold in the case of all those who work under them, even if they are tarnished by past association.
We must also remember that free elections alone do not a democracy make. They require a population sufficiently well-informed to cast their votes for responsible leaders genuinely committed to the public good, and not to demagogues who promise the earth but deliver hell. This, in fact is one of the more ironic reasons why Tunisia’s uprising has a better chance of succeeding in the long-term than might some others in the region: under the leadership of Ben Ali, Tunisia successfully developed one of the most well-educated populations in the Arab world.
Despotisms past and present target intellectuals and seek to limit the education of their populations for a very good reason, namely that educated populations are not only more aware of the freedoms potentially available to them; they are also much better at getting and retaining them.
The tendency of long-oppressed populations across Africa and the Muslim world to put one tyrant in place of another, because they had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to discover their new leader’s true qualities and intentions, is a story too often repeated. Idi Amin in Uganda, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and the mullahs in Iran are only a few of the more famous modern examples of an unhappy tradition that stretches back to the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and beyond.
Given that the foreign and defence ministries of most Western countries help to softly maintain the largely secular and seemingly stable status quo across the region, decision-makers in capitals such as Washington and London can only evolve their approach. A complete break from past policy could lead to unwelcome disruption. In Egypt, Western countries’ ties to the Mubarak regime help to ensure at least a modicum of peace with Israel. And in Lebanon, meddling in the intricate latticework that is Beirut’s politics could lead to the sort of civil war that plagued the country for a decade and a half.
That said, the people Middle East are demanding change, and Western policy must change with them. This is why the policy of Western decision-makers should be to press far harder upon extant regimes across the Arab world to increase political freedoms and allow for peaceful opposition movements, rather than encouraging revolution wholesale. People need time to assess the alternative before placing him (or hopefully at some point her) on the throne.
Better governance is only sustainable if it comes from a foundation of moderately-functioning institutions, relatively high levels of education amongst voters and a political commitment to real dialogue and genuine compromise. While it is very early days, Tunisia seems to be setting an example in this regard. But its Arab neighbours will generally have to start with a less solid foundation.
The real revolution would be if Western leaders started to cultivate this foundation to help prepare for the kind of change that endures.
George Grant is the Global Security & Terrorism Director, and Alexandros Petersen the Director of Research at The Henry Jackson Society. Petersen is also a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center. This article was originally published by The Telegraph. Photo credit: EPA.