Is Egypt going to have another Tiananmen Square?

By Jonathan Power
Written August 12, 2013

Is it going to be the massacre of China’s Tiananmen Square all over again? The new civilian/military regime has promised to break up the large Muslim Brotherhood-led demonstrations now being held in favour of the deposed, democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

The demonstrators look immoveable unless massive amounts of force are used. The television pictures show us that there are significant numbers of families among the demonstrators with their (often small) children. If the police and perhaps the army are unleashed on them and there is massive bloodshed of innocent people Tiananmen Square will look like a tea party in comparison. The whole country will be aflame, with a raging civil war a likely outcome.

We have learnt throughout history that the toppling of a long-standing authoritarian regime is not the end of the process of democratization but the beginning of it. Egypt looks as if it will be no exception.

The Arab Spring is losing its way. Freedom House estimates that today 72% of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa and 85% of the people there still lack basic political rights and civil liberties.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring originated, is the only country that has evolved from an authoritarian state to an electoral democracy whose new leaders have supported moderation, civil liberties and the rule of law. The press is vibrant and civil society has blossomed. But even in Tunisia there have been of late some worrying indications that all is not well.

In most countries the leaders have only themselves to blame but in Iraq, the most disturbed of all, apart from Syria, the fault is clearly traceable to the invasion mounted by US president, George W. Bush and UK prime minister, Tony Blair. Iraq’s internal violence today, as Sunnis and Shi’ites battle it out, is a warning of the dangers of up-ending too fast a dictatorship and using violence to do it.

Saddam Hussein who ruled most cruelly had to go eventually but this was not the way to do it. (It is often overlooked that for non-dissident Iraqis, Saddam presided over a country rather prosperous, healthy and peaceful.)

But “every surge of democratization over the last century”, wrote Sheri Berman in February’s Foreign Affairs, “after World War 1, after World War 2, has been followed by an undertow, accompanied by widespread questioning of the viability and even desirability of democratic governance.”

When democratization occurs the pent up distrust and animosity often explode – but not always, as we have seen with the democratization of Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1970s and most of Latin America in the 1980s and 90s.

An explosion certainly occurred in Germany, Italy, and France. In France we should return to the time of the Revolution in 1789. This was a popular uprising against the King. But the new attempt at constructing democracy was hijacked by the radicals who ushered in the rule of Robespierre who terrorised the people with his mass executions. However, the Revolution did lay the base for a stable liberal democracy that became implanted after World War 2. The Revolution had replaced a patronage system based on feudal hierarchies with a market system based on private property and equality before the law. It changed popular attitudes to citizenship, rights and legitimate government.

Italy democratized just before World War 1. The war made for a difficult aftermath. The country’s two largest political parties, the Socialists and Catholics (the latter were analogous to the Muslim Brotherhood) were at loggerheads. In 1922 the King turned the country over to a fascist dictatorship run by Benito Mussolini, a partner of Hitler in World War 2. At war’s end, after Mussolini was strung up from a lamp post, democracy was restored. Italy was able to benefit from its earlier trial run and pick up where the democratic experiment had left off.

Germany democratized during the short-lived democratic wave that swept across Europe after World War 1. But the young Weimar Republic was plagued by social conflict, political instability and extremism. Left and right fought each other on the streets. The Great Depression pulled Germany down as did the Versailles Treaty that demanded enormous reparations to be given to the victors of the Great War. In 1933 Hitler came to power on the back of massive unemployment and democracy was soon shunted aside, not to be revived until the end of World War 2. Beneath the carnage the spirit of the earlier democracy and freedoms remained in the collective memory and was resuscitated without too much trouble.

This was the hard way of learning to value democracy. One hopes the participants of the Arab Spring won’t have to go through so much horror and turmoil.

The Egyptian government must realize just what is at stake if they shoot up the massed supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Do they want to follow in the footsteps of Europe’s miserable history?

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2013

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