Democracy Blooms in Egypt

The crackdown may have been inevitable, given Hosni Mubarak’s decades-long grip on power, but the revolt occurring in Egypt initially was built on a foundation of nonviolence.

The changes sweeping the Middle East, the throwing off of the cloak of despotism and the move to a more representative form of governance in Egypt and Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen, were promised in 2003, were supposed to be the result of the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow by force of Saddam Hussein.

President George W. Bush and his neocon told us that the invasion would lead to a massive revolution in the Middle East, that the new democracy that would take hold in Iraq would sweep other despots from power, that a huge power shift would occur.

What followed the invasion, of course, was not a democratic revolution. Instead, Iraq descended into civil war and now exists under a very tenuous peace. Afghanistan collapsed and its instability threatens Pakistan. The Iranian regime, anti-democratic, has grown stronger. And then, out of the blue and thanks to grassroots activists in the Middle East, the democratic wave risen and washed across the region, with the affected autocrats, those being pushed from power or made to agree to major reforms, being American allies and not the dictators Bush and friends had hoped to influence.

The precipitating cause: the suicide of a fruit seller in Tunis, the bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt.

Events are moving quickly, so forgive me if what you read here has changed before this magazine arrives your mailbox. Mubarak remains in power, though his hold on it is tenuous and dependent upon a violent crackdown that will do little more than isolate his nation. Tunisia is in flux.

The president of Yemen has announced that he would not seek a new term and that his family would not succeed him. And Jordan’s king dismissed his government and has agreed to reforms.

All of these countries have been American allies. All of them receive military aid and have assisted the United States in the fight against al Qaeda.

These are not the nations that Bush was talking about in 2003, but they are undergoing real change and they are doing so despite and not with the help of the United States.

What the Bush administration and his neocon allies never understood back in 2003 was that democracy cannot be created at the point of a gun, that change would only happen from below, whether or not we want it to happen. And now, we are faced with the prospect of a change we cannot control — and it scares us, because we see a remake of the Iranian revolution in the offing.

But what if what we are witnessing is not Iran-redux, but a remake of the 1989 collapse of the Iron Curtain? Jonathan Schell, in his 2003 book, The Unconquerable World, talked of the power of people movements, as opposed to the use of force.

“Violence is the means, as all dictators have known, whereby the few dominate and exploit the many,” Schell writes. “Nonviolence is the means by which the many can reclaim their rights and advance their interests. Peace begins, someone has said, when the hungry are fed. It is equally true that the hungry will be fed when peace begins. Equality and nonviolence—peace and justice—are inextricably linked, and neither can flourish in the absence of the other. Peace, social justice and defense of the environment are a triad to pit against the imperial triad of war, economic exploitation and environmental exploitation.”

The Eastern Europeans, he said, along with others who have broken away from dictatorial regimes and managed to set up free and open societies, eschewed violent revolution for the force of human connectedness. Where violence was the means to the end, the overthrow of the strongman was followed by the creation of a new authoritarian regime (as with the former Soviet Republics that border on Asia and many of the former colonial holdings in African and Latin America).

Violence begets violence, which is why our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led to civil wars in those countries and has yet to bear democratic fruit. It is why we are more likely to see democracy grown in Tunisia and Egypt than in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least in the short term.

Hank Kalet is a poet and regional editor for E-mail; blog; Twitter, @newspoet41;

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2011

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