It is strange now to recall the jubilation with which the ‘Arab Spring’ was welcomed. Amid all the excitement of dictators toppling, many people here in the West, as well as some over there on the ground, forgot that the test of a revolution is not the overthrow of a tyrant, but what comes next.
Though they will never admit it, the Arab revolutions surprised western governments as much as the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. History is always producing the unexpected, which is why some of us never took it for granted that all this would have a happy ending. Now, almost two years after the Tahrir Square uprising, the fates of the revolutions and the region are at a deadly junction.
The West’s swift initial support for the Egyptian rebels was understandable. First, because of the fresh memory of our failure to back the Green reform movement in Iran. But second, because it is just so easy to imagine from a position of comfort that when a dictator falls, a democracy like our own will take its place. It seems so logical that people elsewhere would want the same liberal system which has made our own lives so materially and socially richer. Through our empire and its aftermath, Britain has been able to export ideas of democratic government, law and rights to the furthest reaches of the globe. It is easy to fall into the trap of simply assuming this is the direction in which history is going.
Instead of allowing hope to become the father of expectation, the United States and its European allies ought to have given far more thought to what would come next. Once the bottle of autocracy was smashed, the genie of Islamist political movements was first out. This will not take the region to a place that we — or many of those initial protestors — would wish for. It may well be that those who end up holding long-term power in Egypt are not the liberals of Tah-rir Square but the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood — who, if not checked, will prove infinitely worse than the old regime.
In Egypt’s case, the origins, behaviour and resilience of the Salafists need to be understood. They represent a strict and literal interpretation of Islam, with an intolerance at least as bad as that of the Puritans in Christian Europe. Most worrying is their association with a jihadism which is targeted not only at ‘western infidels’, but against all fellow Muslims who do not share their ideological extremism. The Muslim Brotherhood certainly reflects this general trend, although it is difficult to know yet how homogenous its Egyptian supporters really are.
We should also remember how long it took us in the West to get it right. In Britain, some 150 years passed between the writings of Adam Smith and universal suffrage. Indeed, Britain abolished slavery a century or so before we gave women the vote. Given the choice, we were never willing to expand our electoral franchise when we believed it would undermine our social or economic stability. Just opening a history book should give us some idea of how long this takes. It is not possible to upload democracy, in an instant, to countries that have no tradition of it.
It is essential that we understand that democracy is the last building block and not the first. Any liberal democracy needs three pillars of support. The first is rule of law, applied equally to the governing and the governed. The second is economic liberty, expressed through a free market. And finally comes the concept of rights which apply irrespective of gender, race or religion. Without this necessary architecture, democracy is simply a means of legitimising authoritarian rule. From Weimar Germany to present-day Gaza, the ballot box has often been used by those simply out to seize total power.
You do not need to have been defence secretary to notice how infinitely more difficult the stripping out of the political infrastructure of Iraq made the transition process in that country. Or what painfully slow work it has been in Afghanistan to grow those institutions which a fledgling democracy depends upon. Some people may have believed it was possible to create an instant democracy by deposing a dictator and then holding elections. But history has taught us — and recent history has re-taught us — something different. In almost any given situation there will always be those demanding that western governments help rebels depose a dictator. But we have to ask: what would follow? And might our intervention make things even worse?
Egypt, for all its wealth and culture, has no democratic tradition. It has a judiciary that has only a partial independence, and little concept of universal rights — as you’d expect from a system already infiltrated by fundamentalist Islam. The cries of ‘who lost Russia?’ a decade ago missed an important point: Russia was never ours to win. It is not possible for any country to reshape the political culture of another. All that can be done is to offer support wherever good can be done.
It is essential that the international community gives every support to the forces of reform inside Egypt. Such forces stand as the keystone in the potential bridge between the Democratic free world and the Arab states awaking from the nightmare of dictatorship.
But right now, Egypt’s future — and that of the whole region — hangs in the balance. The prize, in front of us all, is a modernising, enlightened Egypt spearheading a stable and energised region. But a slow descent into the quicksand of fundamentalism, dragging down neighbouring nations, would be a disaster with incalculable consequences for us all.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012