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As Arab strongmen exit, will democracy really take root?

In Western history, state churches had to be weakened, monarchies discarded, and the 'divine right of kings' forfeited for democracy to grow. Which institutions and traditions are Arab nations prepared to give up? Something more than strongmen have to go if the new is to replace the old.

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Something in the new political calculus of the new Middle East does not seem to compute. The overthrow of several “strongmen” does not miraculously nor instantly transmogrify an autocracy into a democracy. For more than a millennium, the Arab world has been addicted to and revered strongmen. Has it suddenly kicked the habit? Wait before you answer that.

Demonstrators’ tweets aside, the emergence of another authoritarian figure or combination of figures seems to be a more likely outcome of the street revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya than genuine democratic governance. Arabs traditionally disdain political weakness. Some vital components of democracy, such as compromise, dissent, and tolerance, can be too easily mistaken for impotence in that part of the world.

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We shouldn’t be surprised that at least 300 people died in the “peaceful” Cairo protests, while hundreds more have been slain in Libya. Historically, human revolutions tend to spawn chaos and violence. Afterward, a Thermidorian reaction sets in when the public becomes exhausted, the excesses of the revolutionaries grow to be discredited, and a new strongman or combination of strongmen merely replaces what was overthrown.

Robespierre’s Terror in the French Revolution was replaced by the tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte. Russia has still not totally shed its Stalinist legacy more than half a century after he died.

Solon of Athens, one of the seven wise men of ancient Greece, clearly understood the nature of despotism when in the 6th century BC he wrote, “Tyranny is a very pretty position. The trouble is that there is no way out of it.”

China divested itself of the genocidal cult of Mao Zedong, but that did not end tyranny nor hatch democracy. There is always some ambitious fellow out there who will declare he is “on the side of history.” And there are always toadies ready to fawn over those who proclaim themselves on the side of history.


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