February 3, 2012
by Eric Brown
A version of these remarks was presented at the conference "Liberty, Democracy and the New Realities of the Middle East and North Africa," which took place at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani on November 24-25, 2011.
The revolutions and popular uprisings which have ripped across the Middle East since the beginning of 2011—and which are still very much underway—have had very different origins, and each of them may, in time, give way to very different futures. But they have been unanimous and undeniably clear in their rejection of the repressive and corrupt authoritarianism which has dominated political life in many parts of the Arabic-speaking world over the last half of a century.
A new political order is coming into being in the Middle East; but what will it look like?
In important respects, Revolution will likely prove far easier than what lies ahead. Right now, the emerging polities here in the Middle East which have come through their revolutions are grappling with an altogether more difficult, yet crucially important political task—defining not what the revolutions have been against, but what they will be for.
This question, to say the very least, is an open-ended one, and has generated enormous fear as well as hope in the Middle East and elsewhere. In the clamor to make sense of what's happened, Western commentators have frequently compared 2011 with two other profound political transformations of recent memory: The 1989 revolutions, which freed a large swathe of the globe from Soviet Tyranny and brought democracy to Eastern Europe, and the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which brought to power a totalitarian theocracy which menaces its people and the peoples of this region to this very day.
Right now, we can see an open contest between anti-democratic as well as modernizing and some liberalizing forces, but the new norms and patterns of political life have yet to take shape. The situation in Egypt looks especially bleak, and there's little right now which appears capable of reversing the slow-motion disintegration of that country's economic and security situation. Important elements of the region's Old Order are also still clinging to life. In nearby Syria, the Assad regime has thus far managed to brutally suppress the uprisings against it. We can expect that Damascus's backers in Tehran will try to seize upon 2011's turbulence and redouble its efforts to impress its own designs on the region. Suffice it to say, 2011's full import will not be known for some time to come.
Thanks to the uncertainty of the situation, some commentators in the West have compared the 2011 revolutions with the upheavals which rocked the states of Central Europe over 150 years ago, in the year 1848. The parallels between 1848 Central Europe and 2011 Middle East are indeed quite striking. In both, economic distress and public fury over a corrupt and anachronistic political order ignited a broad-based revolutionary movement which heralded in a new age of populist politics shaped by contending nationalist, liberal, as well as more radical and utopian aspirations. Both 1848 and 2011 have thus been described, and I think rightly so, as "Springtimes of Peoples."
There are two other reasons why I think the comparison between 2011 and 1848 is apt, both of which will bear upon my remarks today. The first is that, within the context of European History, and specifically, the history of Central Europe, 1848 was a watershed year in a complex and profound process which had begun in the wider Western world with the recovery of classical Greek and Roman political thought by the thinkers of the Renaissance era and the early modern proponents of republican government.
This process culminated in the formulation of an expressly modern and democratic concept of citizenship rooted in the ideal of Self-Government. Of course, it was the American Republic, founded in 1776, which was the first regime to put this modern concept of the self-governing citizen into practice—and, even then, the freedoms and responsibilities of full citizenship were extended to only a select group of men, not to American society as a whole. Yet what the revolts of 1848 helped to show, as the commentators and sociologists of mid-nineteenth century Europe took note, was that democratic Self-Government wasn't merely the ideal of a far-flung peoples in North America, but increasingly a universal aspiration.
In my view, the 2011 revolutions prove that the Middle East is now integrally, perhaps irreversibly, part of the universal discussion about liberty and democracy, and this may, in time, contribute to the successful transitions of the many polities within this region toward greater freedom and Self-Government. As the Moroccan philosopher Abdou Filali-Ansary observed recently in the National Endowment for Democracy's 2011 Lipset Lecture, "democracy has become the implicit religion of humanity."
The second aspect of the 1848 revolutions which bears on what I wish to discuss today is the fact that Central Europe's revolutions ultimately failed. The democratic order which liberal republicans struggled to create in Central Europe rather swiftly collapsed beneath the weight of irreconcilable disputes and the popular temptations of utopian and radical political ideas. Not only was the Old Order able to re-assert itself, but the populism of the era soon gave way to new ideological trends—to romanticism and communism, for example—which subsequently became the wellspring of the totalitarianisms of Right and Left that ravaged the world politics of the twentieth century, the bloodiest and the most depraved centuries in all of history.
In saying this, I don't mean to suggest that the Middle East of 2011 is condemned to more years of war, revolution and sectarian strife. This future is certainly possible; indeed, some realities on the ground suggest it is even likely. But this region need not suffer modern Europe's fate.
I say this, rather, to underscore a point: That democracy is an enormously fragile achievement and difficult to hold onto—especially in a "Springtime of Peoples" like our present one, with all the passions and ideological zeal which it has unleashed. The progress of human freedom in this part of the world, just as it is everywhere else, will be well-served by a healthy skepticism informed by the tragedy of history, and by a deep awareness of the real and abiding dangers which lie ahead.
To read the rest of these remarks, please click here.
Eric Brown is a Research Fellow at Hudson Institute and co-editor of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology.
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