We are all hoping for true democratic revolution in North Africa and the Near East. Movements for democracy have made themselves felt from Morocco to Iran. Some have been crushed. Others, particularly in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt may be on the verge of success. We wish them well.
We share the same genes with all the peoples seeking better, fairer, more democratic government. All people have the ability to live in democracies. People from all over the world who live among us in America, live as solid democratic citizens, who cherish freedom and democratic government with all the thrill and excitement of people who know how precious it is. I know many such people – Muslims from the Middle East, Jews from the former Soviet Union, Asians of many faiths from all over that immense continent who have a deep appreciation of what we have here.
We’re lucky. We inherited freedom. We elected state legislatures a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence. Existing state governments and the already established Continental Congress ran our Revolution.
It’s important to understand how important that was for us. We were not just a mass of people who happened to come together trying to figure out who was who and what governments and rights they needed. We already had the basis of an organized people’s army. There is no way to overestimate the value of those historical facts for our Revolution, and our ability to construct a democratic and free society in its wake.
Armies have been crucial. In Egypt the Army decided to stop shooting. They could have repeated the cruelty of Tiananmen Square. They did not. I see ways in the proposed constitution that the Army, which is controlling the changes in Egypt, is protecting itself. But we need to recognize that it is the decency of the Egyptian Army and its willingness to take risks with their privileges, that have made that revolution possible.
The story in Libya has been very different. Although many defected and joined the rebels, the Libyan Army hasn’t had the same reluctance to shoot as the Egyptian Army.
The people have been a catalyst. But the armies held the guns and they decided whether to terrorize their peoples or accede to popular sentiment – at least to an extent.
To the extent any of these countries turn toward democracy, they will not be the first modern nations in which the existing authorities assisted the transition to democracy. Spain and Portugal are prominent examples. So too was the Philippines and many of the states behind the former “iron curtain.”
But those examples should be a warning. Some of those revolutions failed and some of these will, not because of something in the people, but because those with the arms and ammunition will be making the crucial decisions. The absence of tried and true institutions among the rebels also means that no one really knows who or what will take power. Inertia threatens ground-up revolutions because the existing expectations about how to behave, get advantages or get things done, are all shaped by the old system. Things can move in many directions both because of the Army and because the protesters are only beginning to organize.
The other warning comes from Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast majority of countries that have become democratic, did it themselves. We and the international community have added pressure and offered help in many of the successful transitions. And we can now. But the revolution has to be theirs.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 8, 2011.