Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why the "Arab Spring" spells disaster... and why it might not

The Arab countries undergoing revolutionary maelstroms are all dictatorships without any real democratic traditions. The history of latter-day revolutions suggests that bodes badly for what may come in those lands. If the examples of the French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Cambodian and Iranian Revolutions are anything to go by, the consistent tradition would be for another, more brutal form of government to emerge.

Robespierre's France, Lenin's Russia, Mao's China,  Castro's Cuba, Pol Pot's Cambodia, and Khomeini's Iran became Living Hells for anyone who espoused the ideals of freedom.

In an odd way, revolutions become strange reflections of the tyrannies they profess to replace. Lenin and Stalin became sadistic Czars, Mao became a cruel Emperor, Khomeini was a bloodthirsty, ecclesiastic Shah, and Castro a despotic Generalissimo who just happened to favour Communism over Capitalism.

There is one exception, where a revolution resulted in profound change while civil order
was maintained, and a new government was formed that enshrined rights and liberties unknown in the past. That is in the example of the United States of America.

The differences in the outcome of the American Revolution could be attributed to a variety of factors, but the most basic and profound of these is the fact that the US emerged from the British democratic tradition. The American Revolution was actually the culmination of a British tradition of rebellion aimed at transferring authority from the monarch to the people, dating from the Magna Carta in 1215, through to the English Civil War that pitted Parliament against King Charles I, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that saw James II removed from the throne.

The American Continental Congress was a genuine, functioning, democratic body, so the transition to an independent, liberal democratic system was a natural outgrowth of existing institutions. In fact, it was only through the extraordinary humility and nobility of George Washington that America didn't have its own monarchy for a time. Washington declined the offer to become America's king and in a most rare example among those in position of great power, voluntarily removed himself from it.

Unfortunately, there is no Arab country that bears much resemblance to the values of Colonial America, other than that many of them still maintain the institution of slavery.

And to make matters worse, Arab countries have been mired in state-fed ignorance and hate. Their leaders have, for generations, promoted the idea of Arabs as victims oppressed by the West while fostering sectarianism and racism in government-controlled media that would be shocking to the outside world. As an example of what can happen to a society built on those foundations, one need look no further than the psychotic administration of Ahmadinejad's Iran.

However things may not be as bleak as they seem.

The revolutions that went bad were usually centred around a charismatic leader who would become a new tyrant in the resulting government. No such leader seems to be a factor in any of the Arab revolts.

An even more important consideration is that the revolutions of the past existed largely in a vacuum. While people may have been generally aware of what happened elsewhere, they were primarily focused on themselves. Now we live in an age of instant, global communication. It is just that pervasive exchange of information that is spreading the seeds of revolt through the Arab middle east. On their computer screens, Arabs can see how Canadians, British and Australians live and enjoy democratic freedoms. With that genie out of the bottle, it is unlikely they will want to emulate the repression that the Ayatollahs are imposing on the Iranian people.

Only time will reveal what becomes of the change of the Arab Upheaval. While there is a great deal to be cautious about, there is also much cause for hope.

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