The Last Best Hope
The recent events in Egypt and Tunisia saw aging kleptocratic leaders forced out of office by peaceful demonstrators demanding their freedom and dignity. For many in the West, these events are already fading into memory, albeit recent memory. However, it is too early to relegate them to memory because what is happening now, and what will happen next, remains extremely important.
Citizens of these countries are faced with the difficult challenge of building new political systems that will reflect their aspirations and those of the movements that brought about the initial change. Their success or failure will determine the extent to which the events of a few months ago can legitimately be called revolutions and set the tone in these countries (and in the rest of the Arab world) over the next few decades.
If Egypt, for instance, succeeds in developing reasonably well-functioning institutions, running decent elections and allowing a fair degree of freedom of association and media freedom, it will be well on the path to becoming a democracy. This will radically reshape political life in the Middle East. If it fails, the damage will be severe and could quite easily roll back any real changes or chances for democratic development.
Forcing a despotic leader out of office through peaceful protest can empower a population, strengthen the people’s ability to act and think like a free people and provide inspiration for future generations. If the government that follows is as repressive as the old regime, a very real possibility in Egypt or Tunisia, then these positive feelings will quickly transform into despair and hopelessness.
Therefore, this moment represents the last best hope for freedom for the Egyptian and Tunisian people. If these countries do not move meaningfully towards a democratic end, the people will likely wonder whether this goal can ever be reached and again resign themselves to living in an undemocratic regime, only this time with less hope.
As long as Mubarak was in power, people in Egypt could speak hopefully, even dream, of the day that Mubarak would be gone. Now that this day is here, there is no more hoping or dreaming, only building and working. If this is not successful, ordinary people will have a difficult time believing there is any future for democracy and freedom in Egypt.
The courageous organizers who led the movement that overthrew Mubarak faced numerous obstacles, including a deep fear of the government that was felt by many citizens. If their efforts fail, future activists seeking to change the next authoritarian regime in Egypt will face an additional obstacle—the widespread sense that this approach was tried once and was unsuccessful.
Risking your life once in order to get rid of a corrupt regime is an act of bravery and courage, but doing so a second time, after the first time did not lead to any real freedom, might be seen by many as an act of foolishness.
While observers have frequently compared events in 2011 in the Middle East to 1989-1991 in Eastern Europe, when repressive communist regimes quickly gave way to free and democratic regimes in Poland, Hungary, the Baltic States and elsewhere, there are other lessons from the post-Communist period that demonstrate the cost of failing to bring democracy after the initial breakthrough.
In Russia, for example, attempts at democracy failed to bring stability or prosperity in the 1990s. This is often cited by that country’s authoritarian government as a reason why democracy is not right for Russia. More importantly, this notion seems to be accepted by many Russians. Calls for street mobilization in post-Rose Revolution Georgia have failed to generate much enthusiasm from ordinary Georgians because they have seen that while these actions may be able to bring down a government, they have not led to meaningful political reform. Even in Kyrgyzstan, where two authoritarian governments were brought down within a five-year period, the second time, in spring of 2010, the regime collapsed from within, rather than as a result of widespread demonstrations that made the change possible.
The possibility that unmet expectations in Egypt could lead to stronger authoritarian regimes in the future does not mean that the recent events there were not significant. On the contrary, it suggests a genuine urgency in the Middle East—making sure that these democratic breakthroughs can lead to democratic advances, not simply broken dreams of freedom.
The policy implications are clear, but the policies themselves are difficult. First, managing expectations is extremely important. If ordinary Egyptians or Tunisians believe that freedom and democracy are right around the corner and will lead to immediate prosperity and comfort, they will be poised for the kind of disappointment that can lead to despair.
If, however, they understand that Mubarak or Ben Ali’s departure is only the beginning of a long process that will be arduous, uncertain, characterized by setbacks along the way, but ultimately worth it, the hope they feel now might last a little bit longer. This message, of course, is an extremely hard one to deliver at this moment of excitement and celebration, but now might be the most important time for it.
The West must not conflate the democratic breakthrough, which is an event, with democratization, which is a process that is only beginning. There is a great deal of work to be done in Egypt and Tunisia if either of those countries is going to become a real democracy. This work will require support and assistance from the West.
Obviously, these policy options are extremely expensive and are coming to the fore at a time when the US has limited ability to take on these kinds of new financial responsibilities, but this will only become more expensive if expectations are not kept reasonable.
For the West, it is a tempting policy choice to declare Egypt and Tunisia democracies prematurely, to make public statements that lead the citizens of these countries to believe they are free, the way it did with Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-4. It is also tempting to focus on political institutions and elections rather than on continued economic support. It is tempting, but it should be avoided because we run the risk of inadvertently pushing the people of these countries toward a despair borne of a sense of failure and hopelessness from which it will not be easy to recover.