(Tunisian) Democracy, (Egyptian) Reform, and (Libyan) Anarchy

February 23rd, 2011

In the space between anarchy and democracy lies dictatorship.  Lest we forget this lesson from our history classes, the Arab revolutions of these last few months have refreshed our collective memories. Revolutions are messy things.

First a little history. On July 14, 1789 a French mob successfully stormed the Bastille fortress.  This moment marked a tipping point in the French Revolution, which later gave rise to a representative government in France. Historians have called this Revolution the “dawn of the modern era” when republicanism became “an enduring option.” Today its legacy is fundamentally entwined with our concept of democracy. But at the time, that result was not so certain. In fact, in the weeks following the storming of the Bastille, a degree of lawlessness swept the country that bordered on anarchy.  In rural areas, the “Great Fear” spread; peasants armed themselves and attacked wealthy aristocrats in response to a mélange of rumors that swirled through the nation.  In response, the nobles and bourgeoisie abolished the feudal regime and introduced Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, establishing citizens’ rights to liberty, equality, the inviolability of property, and the right to resist oppression.

That brings us back to today.  At this moment there are three bordering countries—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—which sit in that uncertain tipping point in their histories. Like France in the 1700s, all have witnessed massive, epochal public uprisings.  In Tunisia, protesters ousted the 23-year-old authoritarian regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 28 days.  In only 18 days, protestors in Egypt overthrew Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak, who had held power for 30 years.  Now protesters have taken to the streets in Libya, hoping to replicate the outcomes of their neighbors and demanding the resignation of Muammar al-Ghaddafi, who has ruled Libya for over four decades.  While the protestors in all three countries are to be admired, praised and supported for their bravery and resolution, democracy is not certain in any of these countries.

After the protests which successfully overthrew Ben Ali, Tunisian Prime Minister, Mohamad Ghannouchi, created a government of unity, which will serve as the interim government until elections are held.  But Yadh Ben Achour, the head of Tunisia’s Higher Political Reform Commission, which is tasked with dismantling the repressive laws of Ben Ali, has warned the country risks falling into anarchy as it heads toward multi-party democracy.

When Mubarak resigned on February 11th, he handed over all power to the military, which vowed to meet the demands of the protestors and hold free and fair elections.  In the days that followed, many wondered if the Egyptian military would indeed bring about this “new era of democratic dynamism” or if the country would give way “to a perilous lurch into instability or Islamist rule.”  As David Williams, director of the John S. Hastings Center for Constitutional Democracy, noted “Now that [Mubarak] is gone, he leaves behind a ravaged societal framework that may have trouble supporting a constitutional democracy. The military knows this, and there is a real risk that they may not return power to the people after all.” Defying expectations, however, the military has echoed protestors’ demands; it has dissolved the Parliament, convened a panel of jurists to revise the Constitution, and called for elections in six months.  Only time will tell if they keep their promises.

In Libya we see even less certainty.  Just this morning, Gaddafi issued a fist-banging 75 minute rant in which he promised violent reprisals against the “greasy rats,” swearing he would never leave but “die a martyr.”  Even if Gaddafi is killed or ousted, Libya faces close to insurmountable odds to become a democracy.  Libya is composed of several major clans which retain political significance—the Qaddaffa clan, of which Ghaddafi is a member, the Eastern Zuwayya clan and the Southern clan called Warfalla.  Libya does not have a coherent, national force like the Muslim Brotherhood to pave the way for elections.  As Benjamin Barber, a democratic theorist and author, has pointed out, even if Ghaddafi loses control, Libya will be in for “a long period of civil unrest and tribal turmoil.”

Revolutions do not always end in democracy, despite the best intentions and the most passionate protests.  The political, ethnic, and economic context of each revolution is a much more decisive factor in a nation’s ability to create democracy.  This does not mean protestors do not have the right to demand change, equality, and the right to a representative government.   But it does mean that each of these countries will have a unique outcome, which may or may not lead to democracy.  Despite this reality, we must all continue to support the dreams and hopes of these brave protesters, who search only for the “enduring option” of republicanism.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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