Well. We are now almost six weeks into these dramatic uprising against dictatorships throughout the Arab world: six weeks that have seen aging leaders from Tunisia to Egypt fall from power with relatively limited levels of bloodshed. But we’ve also arrived at a moment when Libya’s fruitcake leader Colonel Gadhafi, regardless of his eventual fate, has dramatically raised the stakes for those considering going into the streets as he bloodily released his armed supporters against his own people.
While, here in the states we finally have a moment to reflect on what we’ve seen and heard during these dramatic weeks. Certainly, what has struck this writer was how poorly these events were covered by the American media. In fact, I have been especially struck by the poor coverage from media’s breathless assumption that merely pulling down leaders like Ben Ali and Mubarak would bring about a new democratic Middle East. Even as other commentators simply assumed that the secular cosmopolitan values of those who seemed to dominate the street demonstrations would end up being the decision makers in a new Middle East.
Clearly, a level of historical naivety that is probably rooted in the reality of how little most Americans, despite our own tradition of democratic revolution really understand either the record of democratic revolutions or democracy itself. After all, the success rate of so-called democratic revolutions is frankly not very impressive. This record also shows how easily they can be hijacked.
After all how many today remember that impressive series of democratic and nationalist revolutions that hit Europe in 1848? Certainly not many given that they were almost a complete failure. How many remember today how Sun Yat’ Sen’s 1911 Chinese Democratic Revolution was hijacked by General Yuan’s attempt to return to monarchy? How many remember that Russia’s March democratic revolution of 1917 was hijacked by Lenin’s Bolsheviks? Or for that matter how so many worked to pull down the shah of Iran’s dictatorship in the name of a more pluralistic Iran that never emerged. The list goes on and on.
Beyond the fact that Americans know little about the depressingly low success rates of most supposedly democratic uprisings, our behavior often shows that we still do not understand much about democracy in general. From our tea party types who apparently believe that successful democracies can operate without compromise to George W. Bush’s assumption that democracy could be imposed from the outside.
A discouraging list that must also include Obama’s supporters, who after the big push in November of 2008, soon acted as if all they needed to bring about the change they claimed to want was to put their hero in the White House and then went off leaving him almost alone to effect those changes.
Not forgetting that we live in a country where even our Supreme Court seems to think that corporations are people and thus have been willing to empower those same companies to use corporate money to directly skew American politics to serve their multi-national corporate interests rather than those of the American people.
Clearly, a better understanding of democracy itself and a healthy skepticism about what is likely to emerge from these developments across the Middle East would have served us all well over the last few weeks as we tried to understand those developments that are going to deeply impact American lives for years.
Yes, years that are likely to see a much more unstable Middle East emerge as those leaders who do survive these challenges, face an even more sullen population likely to turn to more radical actions than mere street demonstrations. While those theoretically lucky communities from Tunisia to Egypt will find themselves trying balance an enormous number of different voices; from secular forces to moderate Islamists and radical jihadists. From more westernized urbanites to more rural tribal communities. Societies that will still face those same and probably worsening economic challenges that originally sparked the uprising and now will press them even further to the wall by rising food and oil costs.
In sort we are discussing very fragile democratic movements that frankly have a better than even chance of producing an outcome significantly worse than the status quo they over threw. A reality that Americans, fellow travelers in this enormously interconnected globalized world, need to understand far better than they do.