In both Egypt and Tunisia the task now turns to figuring out what will replace the overthrown regime. This task will not be easy. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that we will see the establishment of a new regime largely controlled by the same people who benefited from the former dictatorship. While some minimal concessions may be made in terms of elections and legal rights, power and opportunity would still reside with those who held it before. In this case a great opportunity will have been lost.
Another option is that a new faction, long oppressed but no more dedicated to the principles of democracy than the old order, will gain power in one way or another and then use all of the tactics of the old regime to keep it. Thoughts turn immediately to radical Islamists, but they do not present the only danger. As Iraq shows, in any society that is deeply split along racial, religious, political, or geographic lines each faction has to worry about being oppressed if other factions are allowed to gain power.
The task before the Tunisians and Egyptians is large. They must agree on the constitutional rules that will govern their new governments and establish the institutions to protect them. And all of this must be done relatively quickly, involve numerous groups whose interests may or may not coincide and who may or may not have a history of talking to each other, all while maintaining the basic stability needed to let people go on with their normal lives.
Now we see the price the United States pays for its appeasement of tyranny. In different circumstances it would be highly desirable if America could act as a guide in this process. After all, we went through it ourselves once. America certainly has many things that would help in the transition; money, a large body of highly trained civil servants with experience in running the police, judicial, welfare, infrastructure and other institutions necessary to a modern society, and social, economic, and cultural traits that appeal to a large part of the population. Perhaps most important, the American people have a deep history of respect for religious freedom, individual autonomy, and civil society.
What we do not have, at least in Egypt, is legitimacy. For decades American administrations supported the Egyptian government despite its oppression of the vast majority of its people. Large amounts of military assistance were given because it served the interests of Mubarak and the army, not because it was at all useful to the vast majority of Egyptians. America looked the other way as the regime became more corrupt and closed off more avenues of political expression and economic participation to more people. Lectures in democracy were always enough to satisfy our conscience but never enough to change reality. Protesters in Egypt have few reasons to think that the American government is really interested in helping them realize their desires with respect to economic growth, the role of Islam in society, and peace in the Middle East. It could be different.
In the end, support for democracy implies that governments should represent the will of their people, even if this will is opposed to the interests of America and its allies. The corollary of this principle is that citizens are responsible for the governments they support. Belief in the right of Egyptians to make their own decisions on the peace treaty with Israel does not mean that America should support whatever decision they make. But in a democracy arguments about public policy have to appeal to the interests of the people as a whole rather than the interests of the ruling class, the army, or the United States. America’s foreign policy has never attempted to do this in the Arab world, preferring instead to talk over the heads of the citizenry to governments that do not represent common opinion.
Preservation of democracy requires the establishment of civil society; the routine treatment of social issues by individuals and groups based on dialogue, common respect, and trust. A recent Foreign Affairs article by Clay Shirky makes three interesting points about this process. First, the growth of civil society makes it easier to overthrow a repressive regime because the exchange of information erodes the government’s legitimacy and makes its weaknesses common knowledge. When the revolution comes, civil society provides the strength to resist the government’s attempts to preserve itself. Second, the existence of civil society makes the second stage of any revolution much more likely to succeed by providing public leaders with the popular authority to make constitutional decisions. And finally, communications technology, especially social networking sites, can play a vital role in this process. Shirky argues that, while access to Western media sources is important, the most vital role of technology is putting citizens in touch with each other so that they can start the dialogue needed to build a stronger society.
It may be too late for the United States to play a meaningful role in determining what replaces Mubarak. But we can do better going forward. First, by making it clear that, while the United States believes that every nation should be democratic, it is ultimately up to each people to demand their own freedom. Attempts to overthrow or undermine regimes from outside are unlikely to produce democratic governments without a strong civil society ready to assume power when it is handed to them. Second, by making it clear that when citizens do make a common decision to support a policy, America will always support their right to do so, even if it opposes the policy itself. And finally, as Shirky argues, the United States should focus on supporting technology that increases personal and social communication among a state’s population. These tools have the dual purpose of increasing economic growth and building civil society. Any regime that attempts to shut them down faces the “dictator’s dilemma;” because these tools are central to modern economies and effort to shut down the medium of social communication also imposes large economic costs.
Let’s hope that future Administration’s do more to act on the belief that: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Even if that form does not seem the most convenient for us.