The Day After the Revolution: Puncturing the Myth of Arab Immaturity

Privately the West has never believed that the Arabs were mature enough for democracy. Now change has arrived, and we better decide where we stand

It’s the day after the Egyptian revolution, and now it’s time for us in the West to take our man-pill.

Our public posture has always been that we support democracy for everyone, everywhere.

But privately we have never embraced that belief for the Arab world. The Arabs were not mature enough to handle democracy. We would never say this aloud. But it was the conventional wisdom nonetheless, even within the upper echelons of Arab society.

As a geopolitical choice, U.S. governments have long preferred the stability of an autocrat like Hosni Mubarak to the high-risk uncertainty of true democracy. (Photo left of celebrants outside Egypt embassy in Lebanon.)

And not just in Egypt. We are buddy-buddy with repressive self-made royals in the Arabian Gulf. We truck with Morocco, Jordan, and tolerate the tyrants in Syria and Libya. We helped create Saddam Hussein and propped him up for decades.  

But the attitude that Arab society is best served by strongmen rather than elections was not limited to American policy-makers. I heard this countless times over my years covering the Middle East; I recall hearing it from a senior Jordanian official more than a decade ago, explaining why King Abdullah (or was it then King Hussein?) was necessary to maintain stability.

Then we invaded Iraq. Does anyone among us really believe that the purpose was to bring the Iraqis democracy? It was about deposing Saddam, the dictator we created and then lost control over.

But change has arrived, and we had better decide where we stand.

In Egypt, the people showed a remarkable maturity, gathering peacefully day after day to make their demands. Their nonviolent persistence, so very moving, showed the world the moral imperative of protest in the service of a just cause.

It is remarkable. Now two Arab nations within a month have deposed dictators of decades-long reign, without firing a single shot. And with blessedly little loss of life.

And it is set to spread.

The Egyptians we are seeing speak on television show intelligence and poise. Will they prevail in this next period of transition?

We don’t know.

There are many who are quietly worried that Egypt and Arabs are not ready, or will never be ready, for the messy imbalances of democracy.

Too bad. We’d better get on this train, and help guide it, steer it, support it.  

And don’t turn off Twitter just yet.

The revolution that has just occurred in Egypt is sending out ripples even now.