Ch-ch-ch changes?

10 03 2011

The recent revolutions in the Arab world bring to mind two thoughtful, but opposite, observations by Isaac Asimov and Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.  First Asimov:

The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today.  No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.

And here is Karr:

The more things change, the more they remain the same. (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)

Much of the debate over the significance of the revolutions in the Arab world seems to revolve around these two poles.

My position on all this is solidly on the fence.  The evidence of change in human society is clear: many more democracies exist, or are emerging, than even just a generation ago.  Yet, while humans are capable of change, as individuals and as a species, my caveat is simple: nothing is preordained.  While change does come it often arrives in fits and spurts and can be very painful for many millions of people.

It is far too early to foretell the outcome of the Arab revolutions any time soon.  Democracy in the Arab world may take years.  This has nothing to do with a belief that Arabs somehow are intrinsically incapable of democracy.  There is no such thing as a “democracy gene” in the human genome and to believe in some genetic anti-democratic trait within Arabs is, quite frankly, racist.  There just hasn’t been a democratic tradition in Arab society.  Yet.

In general the history of human civilization is strikingly undemocratic.  Monarchy has been more the norm of human governance for thousands of years than any other form of government.  Modern democracy is just scarcely over two centuries old.

Europeans, like Arabs, are not intrinsically democratic or non-democratic.  The last two hundred plus years of European history should convince anybody of that.  The dawn of modern European democracy began with the French Revolution of 1789, which overthrew the tyranny of French monarchy and feudalism.  The fall of another tyranny, Communism, took place fully two hundred years later in 1989.  These two centuries in Europe saw bloody revolutions and counter-revolutions, numerous wars (including two world wars), dictators, totalitarianism, racism and genocide, concentration and death camps, gulags and colonialism.  Yes, a largely democratic Europe eventually did emerge, but look what it took to get there.

Europe’s history is not deterministic for other emerging democratic societies.  The birth pangs of democracy in the Arab world may not be so traumatic as they were in Europe.  I cite Europe’s history only as a guidepost of what may come.  Hopefully, the Arab peoples will succeed in avoiding a similar history.

For most of the protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, democracy seemed to be a prime motivation.  But, a democratic outcome is not guaranteed.  Furthermore, each Arab revolution is different.  The Egyptians and Tunisians staged largely non-violent revolutions, while the uprising in Libya is a full fledged armed insurrection that may fail and leave Qadaffi in power.  Meanwhile, the Shi’ite majority’s revolt against the minority Saudi-backed Sunni king in Bahrain (is this a form of apartheid?) is vulnerable to Iranian intervention.  With the law of unintended consequences at play, this may result in direct hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Not likely, but still possible.

Throughout all this upheaval, one population of Arabs has remained largely quiet: the Palestinians.  Palestinians may take away from these nonviolent revolutions throughout the Arab world that, in place of negotiations, this is the way to achieve statehood.  A negotiated path is preferable, of course, but Palestinians may reach the conclusion that a truly non-violent mass movement for independence may force a situation in which Israel’s options would be severely limited.  A Palestinian uprising that had the discipline to abstain from suicide bombings, shootings and stabbings of Israeli civilians would be truly revolutionary for Palestinian politics.  The big question looming over all this is whether or not all Palestinian factions, from Fatah to Hamas to Islamic Jihad, would be able to muster enough discipline among their respective rank-and-file to actually stage a non-violent uprising — assuming of course that non-violence is what they would  want in the first place.

Whether we ever get to this point, however, is debatable.  There is much evidence that the Palestinian population is exhausted from the last decade of violent confrontation, which in fact netted hem little.  Furthermore, Hamas’ popularity in Gaza is waning, and there is hope among Palestinians that the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to build state institutions, while naming a target date for a unilateral declaration of statehood (September 2011), may actually produce something important and historic.  Ideally, such unilateralism will be avoided and a negotiated final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians will be the result.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

The history of revolutions should give pause.  The French peasantry that stormed the Bastille in 1789 did so without a clue that Robespierre would hijack the Revolution and institute the Jacobin Terror with its Revolutionary Tribunals and guillotines.  Nor did the Russian peasants who overthrew the Czar in 1917 do so in order to bring on decades of Stalinist repression with his firing squads, purges and gulags into which millions entered never to be seen again.

I’m not being pessimistic, rather we just don’t know what will happen in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain or Yemen.  Revolutions are by definition chaotic.  Who will emerge as leaders in these countries?  Another Robespierre, or more hopefully, another Vaclav Havel whose 1989 Velvet Revolution led to democracy in Central Europe?  Will Sheikh Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood hijack Egypt’s revolution?  Even if democratic elections are instituted, could we end up with one person, one vote, one time?  Perhaps a re-rereading of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is in order!

Or, not.  Maybe the amazing energy of the street will keep the politicians and would-be revolution hijackers at bay, and an open democratic society, with institutionalized checks and balances, will actually emerge.  We really have no choice but to wait and see.

The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.

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