During those heady Tahrir Square days in the spring of 2011, many of us thought—or hoped—the Egyptian uprising would turn out to be another EDSA Revolution, a triumph of democracy, a glittering example of successful non-violent political change. For those of us who had participated in different ways in the struggle to overthrow Ferdinand Marcos decades ago, there was a nice feeling of “déjà vu all over again,” to borrow Yankee catcher Yogi Berra’s immortal phrase.
Over two years later, Egypt preoccupies us once more, and our thoughts are likely to be depressing ones. There is really something dreadfully wrong with this military-led alliance of Mubarak supporters, secularists, and oppositionists that deposed the democratically elected Morsi government.
True, the Morsi government exhibited authoritarian predilections, but respect for the rules of the democratic game is usually not something innate but one that is forced by the rough and tumble of struggles that unfold in both parliament and the “parliament of the streets.”
In the case of the Philippines, for instance, it took nearly a quarter of a century after the EDSA Uprising for the extreme left and the extreme right to be socialized to the rules of representative democracy, and the process remains incomplete.
Democracy is a learning experience, and it was the cut and thrust of democratic competition that could have led to a pluralist democratic system that was cut short by the same military that sustained Mubarak.
The events in Egypt lead us to ask the hard question of where, over two years after it broke out, the Arab Spring is headed. For the bloom is off the rose almost everywhere, with the assassination of key opposition leaders in Tunisia, the collapse of the central state in Libya, and the unending civil war in Syria, the cost of which has now exceeded 100,000 lives.
One may wonder whether with all the violence, sufferings, and interventions it has unleashed, the Arab democratic uprising is worth it. Has it not opened a Pandora’s Box, the bad things from which outweigh the good? That western neoconservatives and Zionists answer in the affirmative is not surprising since these cultural chauvinists believe that owing to their being a western outpost in an Arab sea, only Israelis are capable of democratic rule. But often, when confronted with this question, even liberals and progressives are paralyzed.
Confronted with these troubling questions, it is probably useful to take a comparative perspective and the long view.
With respect to violence and human rights violations, democratic transitions that are bloody far outnumber those that are peaceful.
As Barrington Moore reminds us in The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, the English transition to democracy, which is often mistakenly presented as a case of peaceful evolution, was a violent one that involved numerous deaths in a civil war, including the beheading of a king, Charles I, in the seventeenth century. And as Arno Mayer so vividly documents in his opus The Furies, The French Revolution, the classic democratic transition, saw the interplay between revolutionary Terror and Counterrevolutionary Terror that took thousands of lives over a chaotic five-year period.
But after the violence, after the bloodshed, will democracy ultimately prevail? Revolutions have their ebbs and flows, and it does seem like the solidity of the institutions that emerge are built on the inevitable struggles that the democratic revolution unleashes. In this regard, the French revolutionary democratic process that began in 1789 can only be said to have been firmly consolidated with the Third Republic from 1870 to 1940.
In between, the country saw counterrevolution, Napoleon’s imperial government, the revolution of 1830, the revolution of 1848, the Second Empire, and the Paris Commune. Much like France’s experience, many democratic transitions are like a dance with several movements, consisting of two steps forward and one step back, but the overall direction is forward.
Closer to our time, the Latin American experience is instructive. Thousands perished in the resistance to dictatorships in the 1970’s and 1980’s, with some 30,000 in Argentina alone.
The authoritarian regimes were overthrown in the early eighties, but the democracies that emerged were subverted in the late eighties and nineties by regimes dominated by elites backed by the International Monetary Fund that imposed poverty-creating structural adjustment programs in the 1990’s.
By the first decade of the 21st century, however, people throughout Latin America had had enough of elite democracies.
People’s movements produced new populist and more participatory democracies that supplanted elite democracies in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and neoliberal economic regimes were dismantled in these countries as well as in Brazil and Argentina.
The democratic revolution had its advances and retreats, but the strategic thrust of the process was forward, towards democratic deepening and consolidation.
Indeed, the sharper and more protracted the struggle, the more firm, it seems, are the foundations of the democracy that emerges.
The Arab democratic revolution will have its ebbs and flows, but, taking the long view, it is likely that the omega point of the Arab Spring will be the institutionalization and consolidation of democratic forms and practices that will have their own unique features and dynamics.
What we may be witnessing is simply the end of Act I of the democratic revolution in the Middle East.
*Walden Bello is representative of the party Akbayan in the House of Representatives of the Philippines.