Few bets are safer today than that we will see more uprisings in the Middle East in 2011, though maybe not everywhere. One of the ironies of revolution is that it is hardest to do where it is needed most. Hosni Mubarak was a dictator, but his rule was neither absolute nor bloodthirsty.
Revolutions often produce something worse than they replace. But in the case of Egypt the nature of the protests gives strong reason for optimism because history teaches that peaceful uprisings are likely to eventuate in real freedom, while violent ones usually end in a new tyranny. The violence that did take place in Egypt was mainly perpetrated by Mubarak’s supporters trying to disperse the crowds of people.
One of the remarkable things about the protest movement has been how small a role Islamists have played. There is every reason to discount the sincerity of recent claims of democratic intent by Muslim Brotherhood representatives. They have felt constrained to sound like liberals to fit the public mood.
The Muslim Brotherhood wants quick elections because it is the only force that is organized. The military should resist this demand. Instead, it should resume the dialog with civil society and share power with a collection of civic figures. This would signal that the generals don’t intend to keep power. And it would buy time to devise and hold fair elections.
The presidential vote scheduled for September should be pushed back. While it might be possible to hold a balloting for the top office that soon, the same isn’t true for legislative elections. These are more complicated in structure; and the voters are less familiar with the candidates, making parties more important. Yet, it might be dangerous to elect a president without a parliament as a check on his power.
So the best choice would be to delay polling until, say, a year from now to assure a true reflection of popular will.
At the moment, tremors are being felt in Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain and Algeria ― all of them relatively mild dictatorships. Probably none of them are willing to mow down thousands of their own citizens as the Syrian regime did in Hama in 1982 and Saddam Hussein did in Iraq more than once.
Even though they are gloating over the demise of Mubarak’s secular pro-Western regime, the biggest losers may well turn out to be Iran’s mullahs. They have shown they have few scruples about shedding their countrymen’s blood. But if massive violence is required to prevent a second outpouring of support for Iran’s Green movement, even the Revolutionary Guard may split.
Although the Greens were successfully repressed in 2009, Egypt’s revolt has breathed new life into them, just as they inspired the Egyptians. It is only a matter of time ― and not too much of it ― before the next, and perhaps decisive, round of protests erupts.
Even if Iran’s rulers get their wish, and the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Egypt, they will rue their victory. The rivalry between a Sunni Islamist regime in Egypt and the Shiite one in Iran will quickly resemble the Sino-Soviet competition that undermined communism. But it seems less likely now than most observers would have predicted a month ago that the Muslim Brotherhood will prevail in Egypt.
In the Arab world, not a single regime can feel secure. Revolutions are contagious. The fever that brought down Egypt’s dictator was caught from Tunisia. But the germ appeared 18 months earlier in Iran. Back then, Egypt’s cyberspace was filled with lamentations on the theme “Why are we so lame?”
These were young people desperate for change who marveled that a million Iranians were marching for their freedom while protests in Cairo drew only hundreds. But the images from Tehran spurred more activism among Egyptian youth ― some of it in the streets, some on the Web ― climaxing in Tahrir Square.
We’ve seen these contagions before. Strikes in Silesia in 1988 rekindled the embers of Poland’s Solidarity movement, and by the end of 1989 the whole Soviet empire was gone, followed within two years by the Soviet Union itself.
The replacement of military dictatorships in Portugal and Spain in the mid-1970s hit Latin America’s autocrats like a plague. In 1977, Freedom House counted 10 free countries in the Americas; a decade later it found 25. In 1848, a rising in Palermo, Italy, proved rather catchable, and before the year was out, some 50 cases of revolution had been spotted across Europe. Of course, the model of revolution in Europe came from France in 1789, where it had been carried from the American colonies.
The spirit of the Egyptian revolution was constructive, not destructive. The mood of the protesters was patriotic and brotherly rather than rancorous. The day after, brigades of protesters came back as volunteers to clean the streets. This bodes well for the country and the region. If the Egyptians can make a successful transition to democracy, others will follow.
By Joshua Muravchik
Joshua Muravchik is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of “The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East.” The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.