Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Trouble with the Arab Revolts

by Richard Crews
These are heady times across the Arab world. Throughout North Africa and southwest Asia protesters have risen up against their entrenched dictators; they have unseated several and rocked the foundations of many. In the Western halls of liberal democracy one can almost hear a smug refrain, "See? We knew it would happen to you."

In the bed-time-story view of history, oppressed peoples rise up and throw off their yokes--yes, there is tribulation and bloodshed--but no, there is no turning back. Out of the chaos, order rises--pluralistic, peace loving, and devoted to civil liberties.

But the real world is not often like the bed-time-story view. The trouble with the Arab revolts is that there are no seeds of liberalism hiding, gestating, waiting to rise from the ashes. For decades, opposition voices have been beaten down--the would-be leaders have been arrested, murdered, or driven abroad; their nascent organizational efforts have been nipped in the bud.

The functioning of a mature democracy is invariably a messy business. (Knowing that it is invariably messy is the only bleak comfort one can take from the political paralysis that greed and small-minded ambition have brought to the present-day U.S. national dialog.) Running a democracy is hard--building a new democracy is even harder. It depends on having access to the seed ideas but also on stumbling historically across great leaders who have brilliant charisma (which they must have to emerge as leaders) but also grand, ethical perspectives. It depends, as well, on the surging--but unpredictable--tides of history. In other words, in addition to the seed ideas and the time for cooking up the necessary institutions, it depends--let's face it--on luck.

We rejoice with the Arabs in throwing off their yokes. But we also shudder fearfully with them in contemplating the chaos, the mistakes, and the false starts that lie ahead--that must inevitably be a part of the birth of their new nations: the resurgence of bitter tribal rivalries, the assertion of vicious religious and ethnic prejudices, the tenacious greed of the "haves" and the plaintive pain of the "have nots."

That is the trouble with the Arab revolts. At present they are joyous celebrations; the skies are lit with fireworks. But all too soon the liberated peoples must begin to find their way home in the dark, through the wolves and goblins that inhabit the night.