As a lover of democracy and human liberty, I have great hopes for the future of democratic Egypt. As a political scientist and a scholar of geopolitics, these hopes are clouded by some rather dark fears. For all the euphoria over the people power revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the cold and terrible truth is that what has come so far is the easy part. The hard part comes in the next few years as these countries struggle to establish and entrench free and open government.
The sad fact is that most revolutions eat their young. A diverse revolutionary movement can tear itself apart as factions once united by opposition to a common enemy turn to a competition for power in the new order. More often than not, revolutionary leaders turn to fighting each other rather than seeking what is best for their country. For every Washington and Mandela there are hundreds of Robespierres, Lenins, Khomeinis, and Mugabes. Revolution dashes hopes more often than it rewards them.
History does not help to dispel this general foreboding. In 1952 Egypt faced a popular upheaval that led to the toppling of the monarchy and the creation of a “transitional” government charged with paving the way for democracy. The military autocracy thus established by Gamal Abdel Nasser dispensed with democracy early on. It is the Nasserite regime that has been dissolved by the latest military coup. The challenge today is to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
To ensure that democracy wins out will require a serious commitment from the people of Egypt and Tunisia. They will have to hold the feet of their respective transitional governments to the fire and continue to maintain the pressure for free and open elections. They will have to set aside their narrow differences and maintain a united front in favor of an open society. The revolutions of the past month are just the beginning of a journey on the long path to liberty, freedom, and democracy. It’s a hard road and it will require dedication to reach the end.
In spite of the dangers of the road, I choose to remain an optimist. I choose to make a leap of faith that freedom can win out. People who have risked death to breathe the sweet air of liberty will not accept the shackles of autocracy easily. I think they remember 1952. I think they remember the time when freedom was smothered in its crib. I think they won’t make the same mistakes this time. I choose to believe that they will keep walking down the path towards freedom, dragging the tired old autocrats along behind them.