Commentary Magazine


History, Democracy, and Egypt’s Revolution

In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

On February 5, 2011, CNN featured the Egyptian-American leftist Mona Eltahawy and Alan Dershowitz arguing over Egypt’s future. Eltahawy was filled with righteous anger and a sense of her own superior perspective on the issue. She also turned out to be wrong on everything, and Dershowitz right. That in itself isn’t too surprising; Eltahawy flaunts her hostility to Western liberalism, which often leads her down the path of spite and illogic when she claims to know better. But it was Dershowitz’s caution that was notable: he understood from the outset that the worst outcome for Egypt would be a replica of Hamas’s rise next door in Gaza, when the Islamist terrorist group won an election and immediately rolled back any scrap of democracy to secure its tyrannical rule.

Dershowitz warned that the strongest party in the emerging Egyptian power vacuum was the Muslim Brotherhood, and that a Brotherhood election victory could actually be a setback for democracy in Egypt. Of course he was obviously correct even then, but Eltahawy angrily shot back that Dershowitz was a hypocrite, and the following discussion ensued:

ELTAHAWY: You know, it’s interesting to hear Alan used the word democracy because that’s exactly what Egypt is working on right now. These millions of Egyptians who have been on the streets for the past 12 days want to be democratic.

So it’s very hypocritical to describe Israel as a democracy and be alarmist about what’s happening in Egypt because surely you and everyone in Israel should be happy that your neighbor wants to be a democracy and democratic neighbors are happy.

DERSHOWITZ: If it’s a real democracy, not a Hamas-type democracy.

ELTAHAWY: You know, you can’t label democracy. Democracy is the people choosing the government they want and what you’re doing is being alarmist. This is not about Muslim Brotherhood. This is about Egyptians determining their future without anyone else’s interference.

MALVEAUX: David, you want to respond —

DERSHOWITZ: The people chose Adolf Hitler in 1932 by democratic means and the people would probably have chosen Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by democratic means. So democracy has to be both structural that is elections, but also functional. If you elect people who then take away all the rights and make women wear Burqas and deny people the right of —

ELTAHAWY: Wait, wait, wait. Who said — this is utter nonsense. This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood and burqas. You’re talking nonsense.

DERSHOWITZ: You’re just wrong. You’re just wrong. Of course, it has everything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

I remembered the debate at the time because it was so typical of the two sides of this argument: Eltahawy’s ignorance (“you can’t label democracy”; “This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood”) and Dershowitz’s historical awareness. It turned out that past was prologue, in Egypt as elsewhere.

The Egyptian army’s displacement of the Brotherhood government was indeed a military coup. But the Brotherhood government not only wasn’t a democracy; it actually went a long way toward discrediting democracy in the region precisely because of the principle McFaul espoused with regard to Russia. Westerners may be criticized for a bias toward democracy abroad, but in some cases–as with Egypt–they are more realistic about the nature of democracy than they are usually given credit for.

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