Terra Incognita: Careful what we wish for

Chaos has a much better track record of producing more tyranny and fascism, than it does democracy.

February 8, 2011 22:16
Demonstrators gather in Tahrir Square, Monday

Tahrir square protesters 311 AP. (photo credit: Associated Press)

‘Egyptians want what Americans have, they want freedom. [US President Barack] Obama needs to tell [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, ‘You are not leaving in September, you are leaving now; we are not giving you seven months.’” Those were the words of Fox News contributor Tamara Holder.

The mantra that Egyptians want freedom and democracy has swept the world. Alongside this argument is a romantic attachment to the Egyptian protesters, a weird admiration for the “people” and the “mob.”

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All the misinformed support ignores the reality: Just because people riot or protest for something doesn’t mean they are democracy-loving moderates.

The lesson being taught to the Egyptian people by statements like “Mubarak must go now” is that democracy is about rioting and protests. Roger Cohen of The New York Times argues that an “election in September is unimaginable.” Maybe an election in America in November is unimaginable, if enough people protest, say 2 percent as in Egypt; perhaps we too should just change elections based on their demands. Haaretz asks, “Is a democratic Egypt too much for Israelis to take?” But what we are seeing isn’t a “democratic” Egypt.

The Israeli and American Left is especially euphoric in its embrace of the Egyptian masses.

Anshel Pfeffer writes that “people are scaring us with talk of an Islamist takeover of our big neighbor.

But doesn’t Egypt deserve democracy too?” He elaborates: “We’re all suffering from Orientalism, not to say racism, if the sight of an entire people throwing off the yoke of tyranny and courageously demanding free elections fills us with fear rather than uplifting us, just because they’re Arabs.”

According to the doyens of the Left, Israel is a “Western outpost” that does not integrate into the Middle East and thus didn’t prepare for the uprising in Egypt.

IN THE US, all the op-eds by the likes of David Brooks and Maureen Dowd are toasting the crowds in Egypt. Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institute explained that we must not fear an Islamist takeover. “We overlearned that lesson and we need to get beyond that panicky response. There’s no way for us to go through the long evolution of history without allowing Islamists to participate in democratic society.”

Kagan also argues that the US shouldn’t support a slow transition from Mubarak, like elections in September, but rather the immediate removal of the tyrant.

The message is clear from all over the Western world: Egypt’s protesters are true democrats. They are romantic; they are Americans without knowing it and to support them we need to have the government of Egypt vanish overnight and have some sort of chaotic transition. There is no greater sign of democracy than chaos. The Islamists all want democracy; we shouldn’t fear them, but embrace them because they represent the genuine feelings of the people. We are racists because we see large numbers of people marching, shouting and burning, and we fear their rage.

Democracy isn’t about burning down the headquarters of the other party. It isn’t about paralyzing the state so that no business can be conducted and nothing can happen. Oddly, democracy isn’t about mass protests and riots. Democracy is primarily about voting and peaceful transitions of power. The other freedoms that follow from that, like the press, assembly, religion, equality and free speech, are products, hopefully, of democracy.

Democracy has, since its inception in ancient Greece, always been plagued by its evil twins, fascism and tyranny. It is strange to hear, but democracy’s opposite is not tyranny; it is monarchy.

Tyranny is the antecedent or result of democracy.

“Tyranny” comes from the Greek word tyrannos, defined by Plato as “one who rules without law, looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects and uses extreme and cruel tactics – against his own people as well as others.”

Tyranny came about through the rise of popular cults associated with war heroes and wealthy men who seized power through coups. Syracuse, an ancient city state, was a democracy from 467 BCE but in 407 a man named Dionysius I seized power and became a military dictator. The philosopher Plato, a product of Athenian democracy and a democrat himself, became a friend and supporter of this tyrant.

Rome, a republic for many years before it became an empire, suffered from tyranny as well. Sulla, a military leader, was made “dictator” by the Roman Senate for the purpose of “making of laws and for the settling of the constitution.” Like the tyrant of Syracuse, Sulla murdered those he suspected to be enemies of the state.

TO UNDERSTAND tyranny’s relationship with popular democracy, we must fast forward to the period 1917 to 1950. In that period almost all of the liberal democracies in Europe were brushed aside by popular fascist or communist movements. It began with Russia where a brief period of democratic government in 1917 was followed by the communist seizure of power.

The fascists and their enemies used mass protests and chaos, including rioting, to secure power against weak democratically elected patricians who proved incapable of dealing with the street. Yet those who look to Egypt and admire the protesters don’t see that these types of mass protests, while they demand democracy, also walk hand in hand with dictatorship.

It isn’t about the Egyptians being Arabs. It isn’t about Israel “integrating” into its region. It’s about the fact that no one notices that what is going on in Egypt is not a sign of democracy, it is just a sign of chaos and mass protest. Mass protest may cause a government to implement democratic reforms.

But as we have seen in Tunisia, when the government simply collapses and runs away, that doesn’t represent a “democratic transition.”

Chaos, as there is in Egypt, has a much better track record of producing more tyranny and fascism, than it does at producing democracy.

Those who journeyed to Iran in 1979, like the popular French philosopher Michel Foucault, believed they were witnessing “democracy.”

But they were witnessing the rise of Islamic fascism.

No one remembers that. No one who teaches Plato and Foucault recalls that despite all their ideals, they flirted with tyranny; it was sexy, it was strong, it was popular and muscular and in the streets. Our philosophers were wrong. And we are wrong today when the very existence of a mob, rather than orderly lines at the ballot box, makes us feel that “democracy is happening.”

The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.

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