We’re all holding our breath watching the events in Egypt unfold. Many commentators are ebullient. Some are more cautious. In fact, I think Mark Colvin makes an important point about the dangers of revolution, and how quickly the unity in deposing a despot can turn into fractious in-fighting to fill the political vacuum.
United a group may be in their opposition of something, but that doesn’t say much about what they do stand for. Those holding hands today might be wielding clubs tomorrow.
Furthermore, it is precisely in times of instability and unrest – such as those immediately following a revolution – when people are more inclined to turn to a strong authoritarian leader to keep the peace. It’s precisely when people feel the most threatened, either bodily or in a more abstract sense by feelings of uncertainty about the future, that people lean to the right.
And it’s precisely when a nation is undergoing unrest, with multiple political ‘tribes’ vying for power, that trust in ones’ fellow citizens is eroded – “I don’t know whether that person is part of my tribe or the other.”
This kind of tribal mentality is devastatingly destructive to democracy, where trust in your state and trust in other citizens is paramount to making democracy a success. Democracy only works when I’m confident that if the ‘other tribe’ get elected and take power, they’re not going to embark on a pogrom targeted against myself and my ‘tribe.’ It’s this distrust in the system that spelt doom for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In situations like this the trust required for bottom-up democracy is so lacking that a strong top-down authoritarian government is virtually required to keep the peace. However, top-down governments are only good for keeping the peace or defending against invaders. Oh, and they’re good at being corrupt, at entrenching power, at embezzling the nation’s wealth and taking the nation straight back to where it was prior to the revolution.
Democracy is remarkable not because it’s inevitable, but because it’s so difficult to get off the ground. It often takes a unified vision, a population with a largely similar culture and value system, and a stable environment in terms of economic prospects and absence of threat from invaders.
If a state can satisfy all those conditions, and if the people genuinely want democracy – which means they buy in to a system where they might vote for their entire lives and never see their candidate in power – then democracy can flourish. And once established, it’s hard to shake.
Egypt might yet become such a democracy. I’m not conversant enough in recent Egyptian history or ethnography to say whether it does satisfy all these conditions, but I think it stands a chance. The recent restraint shown by the military, and the apparent lack of military ambitions to take over from Mubarak, are positive indications.
But, while the protests underway in Egypt this week are exhilarating – and cause for optimism for a brighter, more open, more inclusive, more democratic Egypt – we should be mindful of the lessons of history and of political psychology and hope that authoritarianism doesn’t block out the sunlight before democracy has a chance to grow.