A Reminder of History


Reading Western news headlines on Egypt leaves me scratching my head wondering: “Are freedom and democracy really that simple?  What does history tell us, and are Egyptians required to repeat it?”

In Jan/Feb 2011, Egyptians said no to military autocracy.  In June/July 2013, Egyptians said no to “Islamist” autocracy.  It is clear now in Egypt that Egyptians refuse to see their country move backwards in time, no matter what.  This concept of moving backwards reminds us that history can provide some valuable lessons.

History tells us that major political transitions are not just political, but involve every single aspect of life in a society, let alone a society that has been around for many thousand years.  It is naive for one to think that a textbook recipe for democracy is a solution, and it is negligent to forget that every single successful democracy experienced generations of setbacks and detours on their paths to free and prosperous societies.  In that same vein, one can say that it is prejudiced and xenophobic to point to the current state of Egypt and the broader Middle East and claim that it is “unfit for democracy and freedom.”

Political scientist Sheri Berman reminds us of this history in a Foreign Affairs Magazine article.  Here are some excerpts:

– All of the advanced industrial democracies have troubles in their past that easily rival or surpass what countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and even Syria are going through now, and it is sheer ignorance or prejudice to ignore such historical patterns…

– The fundamental mistake most commentators on the Arab Spring make is underestimating the scale, scope, and perniciousness of authoritarianism. Tyranny is more than a type of political order; it is an economic and social system as well, one that permeates most aspects of a country’s life and has deep roots in a vast array of formal and informal institutions. Achieving liberal democracy is thus not simply a matter of changing some lines on a political wiring diagram but, rather, of eliminating authoritarian legacies in the society, economy, and culture as well. This is almost always an incredibly difficult, exhausting, and protracted process. It didn’t happen in many parts of Western Europe until the second half of the twentieth century…

– The problems of the Middle East today are more the norm than the exception, and that they have less to do with case-specific factors such as ethnicity, religion, or ideology than they do with the inherent difficulty and complexity of building truly liberal democratic regimes. Getting rid of authoritarianism is a long and nasty process; in the Middle East, at least that process has finally begun.

These are not just important reminders for analysts in the West, but for Egyptians themselves.

Human nature suggests that history is doomed to repeat itself.  My hope is that Egypt does what it can to benefit from the lessons available to us from history, and to create a new history going forward.  There is nothing unique about what Egyptians are fighting for, and many other societies around the world yearn for the same human freedoms that are being sought in Egypt today.  Let’s build on history and create a new one for the 21st century.  After all, all our destinies are indeed inextricably bound….


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