Older observers with long memories will recall that Westerners giddy over Arab Spring revolutions also expressed naive hope when today’s overthrown were yesterday’s overthrowers. When Muammar Qaddafi first seized power, for instance, The Nation magazine greeted him as a liberator. Is the possibility of worse replacing bad that difficult to grasp? In France in 1789, in Russia in 1917, and in Iran in 1979, oppressive regimes fell to forces that ultimately proved more oppressive. The history of 2011 won’t be written in 2011, so “Whither the Arab Spring?” is still an open question—just not one as open in the fall as it was in the spring.
The reality of Middle Eastern democracy doesn’t resemble the dreams of its Western cheerleaders. This is as much a reflection of our hubris as it is of their backwardness. Uprooting centuries of Islamic Civilization would be as difficult as instilling centuries of Western Civilization. Change is often glacial; rarely seismic. And the change we want for them isn’t necessarily the change they desire for themselves.
Multicultural delusions, which often turn out to be parochial imaginings of the universality of Western institutions, set up the shock over the Islamist direction of the Arab Spring. So, too, did democratic delusions. Democracy can look like a quaint town meeting in Vermont. It can look like the bloodthirsty mob in Sirte. Westerners wrapped up in the word’s connotations lose track of its meaning. The political freedom of the ballot can be used to vote away religious, economic, and social freedoms. This is what democracy looks like—at least in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.
Democracy can give power to the people. It is more important to establish what the people can’t take away from the person. These restraints seem utterly lacking in the emerging regimes. More so than political freedom, the Middle East requires political limits.
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