If “History” wasn’t your thing… It’s not too late!
On learning that George Washington intended to follow up his victory at Yorktown by retiring to his farm at Mount Vernon, George III told the painter Benjamin West: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” [Because its my blog, let me remind you: Washington did.] The British monarch may have wound up stark raving mad, but he knew a thing or two about the seductions of power.
We celebrate Washington today as the greatest of the founding fathers. But the fame he gained during his lifetime owed mainly to his willingness to relinquish the vast powers he had repeatedly been granted, and which were his for the keeping. That’s a rarity in the history of revolutions, in which the distance from liberation to despotism—from euphoria to terror—is usually short. The French Revolution began with a Declaration of the Rights of Man. It very nearly ended in an extinction of those rights.
The uprisings now sweeping the Arab world threaten to retrace that familiar arc. Consider the irony of last month’s massive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Until Egypt’s corrupt but tolerant monarchy was overthrown in 1952, the square was known as Midan El-Ismailiya after Ismail Pasha, the great 19th-century Egyptian Westernizer. It became Liberation Square only after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup, yet another calamitous revolution that began brightly with promises of democracy.
Now we’re being told that this time it’s different. [Don’t fall for it…]A day after the demonstrators began to gather on Tahrir Square last month, an Egyptian friend of mine—a former independent member of parliament with close ties to the secular opposition—explained that difference: “It’s a revolution without papas,” he told me. No Nasser, no Ben Bella, no Arafat, just ordinary people in their millions demanding their long-denied civil and political rights.
I’d love to think that my friend is right. And there’s no shortage of pop-political philosophy explaining how in our networked, horizontal, spontaneously organizing era of Facebook and Twitter, there’s no longer a need for credible leaders or effective political parties. Just click the install button on People Power 3.0 and the program will run itself.
Yet until technology recasts human nature, human nature will be what it always has been. And human nature abhors a leadership vacuum. When revolutions are successful, it’s not that they have no “papas”; it’s that they have good papas. So it was with Washington, or with Mandela—men of hard-earned and unmatched moral authority, steeped in the right values, who not only could defeat their adversaries but rein in the tempers of their own followers.
What happens when revolutions don’t have such leaders? The French Revolution is Exhibit A. [Anyone volunteering to travel back in time to Paris??? ] Exhibit B might be Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution of 2005, which took place following the assassination of the charismatic former premier Rafik Hariri. Millions of Lebanese poured into Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square on March 14 to demand the end of Syrian occupation. The Syrians obliged. Elections gave pro-Western groups clear majorities in parliament. The country seemed settled on a better course.
In May of that year I went to Lebanon to see things for myself. “Wherever I go here, the impression is of a people intent on making up for lost time, and determined never again to be dragged down by extremism,” I wrote. “It is these Lebanese, one senses, and not Hezbollah, who are making the country anew, and who are doing so, at long last, in the absence of fear.”
Re-reading those lines today, with Hezbollah in firm control of a puppet government and the various leaders of the March 14 movement murdered, dismembered or politically neutered, is enough to make me cringe.
But it’s also a useful lesson in the limits of the very kind of people power now being celebrated in Egypt. It’s not enough to be against, or to bring down, a hated regime. It’s not even enough to be for something, at least in the sense in which the Arab world now seeks a freer and more representative political dispensation. What’s required is the statesmanship that can give concrete form to a hazy political dream.
It would be nice to believe that this kind of statesmanship will emerge unbidden from decent quarters, which probably explains the fascination with Egyptian Google exec Wael Ghonim. But the perennial political problem is that good people usually lack political ambition. They cede the field to charlatans, romantics and jackals.
As Americans look at what is happening in the Middle East, it’s natural that their sympathies should lie with the demonstrators. Natural, too, is the belief that movements consisting mainly of oppressed people in search of a better life will lead to decent regimes that care for those people. And maybe that will turn out to be true.
But also true is that America’s revolutionary history was exceptional because we had a Washington while the French had a Robespierre and the Egyptians had a Nasser. We owe today’s Arabs our optimism, and the benefit of the doubt. They owe themselves the real lessons of our example.