You say you want a revolution

While historians and commentators are quick to draw parallels with past Western revolutions, the revolting Arab countries may find it more useful to examine the democratic foundation of a Semitic country closer to home. You guessed it, Israel.

Libya protests 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Libya protests 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Is this the “Arab Spring” we are watching? Are we witnessing, live in HD, the Arab world’s version of the 1848 “Spring of the Nations” revolutions throughout Europe? Are Cairo and Tripoli of 2011 the Paris of 1789? Alternatively, is it Moscow 1917 or Beijing 1949? Is the Middle East emulating 1989 Eastern Europe?

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I hope the revolts in the Arab world lead to Jeffersonian democracies. I hope this is the dawn of Arab awakening. I hope, with all my heart, that the Arabs turn shame into liberty, as per the title of Fuad Ajami’s brilliant article in The New York Times last week. I hope the repressive and abhorrent dictatorships of the Arab world will be replaced by responsive governments, pluralistic political systems and genuine regard and respect for rights, openness and the rule of real law. I hope millions of Arabs gain not only access to education but to a life of fulfillment and self-determination. I hope human, political and civil rights are better off once this is over. I sincerely hope that in the end, this will not be reduced to a meaningless “my country went to revolt and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”
Most of all, I hope that anyone else who hopes for all this alsorealizes that this is the predominantly Arab, Middle East region onplanet earth, circa 2011, and that the USS Enterprise, on course fromthe Horn of Africa to the shores of Tripoli is not the one captained byJames T. Kirk.

It’s tempting to dismiss all the aforementioned dates as premature hypeand unwarranted drama, ferried about for the purposes of detachedpolitical analyses. But the fact remains that historical analogies area convenient, if imprecise, tool. Historians, commentators, pundits,journalists and the occasional knowledgeable politicians loveanalogies. Besides the irrefutable truism that history is the singlemost important guide to understanding the present and decipheringinvisible trends, analogies also have an intellectual and politicalrole. They satisfy a fundamental need to put things in order whenevents and processes are in chaos and when vagueness and ambiguitydominate the news cycle.
Analogies of the past provide a framework of reference and usefulpointers for current events in a way that mitigates apprehensions andsoothes anxieties. And more significantly, with regards to events thatare of “historical and seismic proportions,” they enable the mostcherished of skills: prediction. Cue the in-house Middle Eastspecialist or visiting “Arabist” who can spout forth a cute andquotable sound-bite riddled with absolutisms.
Commentators will draw on analogies and the most superficial ofanalyses of any given country to provide a supposedly accurateassessment of what may happen next. And as a result of the oft-maligned24/7 media, they often have no ethical equivocation in expressing anopposite view the very next day because the dictator/military/securityservices/tribes/opposition/Obama did something they didn’t expect. Butthen again, the fact that it also “surprised the White House and theCIA,” somewhat exempts them from criticism.
So without further ado, here’s my contribution to imperfect andpartially misleading historical analogies. This isn’t the GloriousRevolution in 1688 England. Nor is it the American Revolution of 1776or the French Revolution of 1789. It is not Europe 1848 because thereis no such homogenous political and cultural entity called “The ArabWorld” and more significantly, the Arab polities are vastly differentfrom those in Europe in the mid 19th century. The Arab world is anethnic reference, and not one that is comparable to other cultures,history or socio-economic-political structures. Libya and Egypt arefar, far away from each other, as are Lebanon and Yemen, Syria andSaudi Arabia.
While Islam and democracy are not inherentlyincompatible, as demonstrated by Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria(and to a lesser extent the Palestinian Authority and occasionallyLebanon), Arab political culture in the twentieth century and democracyare by and large incompatible. This is not a critique or a politicallypatronizing characterization, but a statement of fact, and one thatdemonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Oman andelsewhere seem to be well aware of.
Democracy is not the sum of institutions, processes and formalelections. Nor does a regime toppling and change of government make ademocracy. Democracy is first and foremost a value system, a set ofrules, the supremacy of the law and the rights of individuals. In thisrespect, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans have a long way to go.
I know that not many Arabs read this column or take cues from thehistory of Zionism and Israel, but if you happen to be one, I have anidea for you. Ignore political culture and decide that you do want ademocracy. Go for it. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. That’s what wedid.
Israelis tend to take democracy for granted as if it was an innate andnatural part of their political origins and development. But the truthis it never was. We made a conscious decision to become a democracy anda cultural commitment to remain democratic. Yes, it was part of ourpolitical genome, but not a part of who we were. For 2000 years wedetested authority, defied uniformity and questioned political powers.There is some truth in the amusing adages that for every two Jews thereare three opinions and that every Jew must have two synagogues (the onehe attends and the one he’ll never set foot in). But if you researchthe political and intellectual foundations of modern Zionism and itsevolution, you’ll stumble across a unique idiosyncrasy: There wasnothing patently democratic about us. And certainly not the Anglo-Saxonbrand of liberal democracy. We came from Russia, Poland, Latvia,Austro-Hungary and Germany and had an idea to reunite with our brethrenfrom Iraq, Morocco, Iran and Yemen.
As a way to ameliorate differences and strive for a broad consensuswhen designing the national institutions, our founding fathers wereessentially illiberal democrats.
In short, we also didn’t have the 1688, 1776 or the 1789 revolutions asformative chapters in our history. So, odd and impractical as it mayseem, I would urge the revolting Arabs to look to Israel in 1948 astheir example. It sounds hopelessly far fetched, but then again so doesthe “Arab Spring.” 
The writer is a diplomat who recently served as consul-general in New York.