Argument

Hold the Applause

Revolutions like Egypt's most often end badly.

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Given the high degree of euphoria and romanticism in the coverage by both Western and Arab media of recent popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, it would be useful for everyone to take a few deep breaths and remind ourselves that revolutions often look very attractive in the beginning. Then they usually go through some really bad periods; the French reign of terror and the decade of political turmoil that followed, the crushing oppression of Soviet communism in Russia, and the unfinished misery of Iranians.

I would like to be optimistic, and there are some positive signs in Tunisia and Egypt. Both countries have strong traditions of national pride, histories of constitutionalism, cultural riches, and a middle class of educated men and women. So far, the armed forces in both countries have shown a degree of professionalism and discipline that have earned the respect of both popular forces and key civilian government institutions. Both have had respectable economic growth rates at a time of global economic distress. Regrettably, however, there are also major factors working against a happy outcome in the next several years.

Removing an unpopular dictator, however entrenched, is far easier than putting a stable political structure in place afterward. The success of this second step stands between passionate embrace of popular overthrow of an authoritarian ruler and prolonged chaos followed by embrace of a new tyranny or anarchy.

Imagine the following, very plausible scenario for what Egypt and Tunisia will look like three months from now:

Instead of the high food prices that spurred the initial protests in both countries, there are serious food shortages. By some accounts, this is already beginning. Bear in mind that there are real prospects of global food shortages this year and next.

Tourists are not even thinking about coming back. The tourism establishments in both countries carry out mass layoffs in this labor-intensive industry. The masses of unemployed join the demonstrators already in the street and gradually the fervor for freedom of assembly and free media is surpassed by more urgent demands for basic necessities.

The private sector stops making investments in Tunisia and Egypt. This is already happening. Look at the investor newsletters in the United States and Europe. Look at the bond downgrades by Moody’s, Fitch, and S&P. Egyptian and Tunisian capital flee their countries for safer environments, even at far lower profit margins. There is an Arab proverb which says, "Capital is a coward. It flees to security."

The European Union, despite being Tunisia’s major market for exports (80 percent), tourists, and surplus labor, does not rise to the challenge. Remember that Europe is going through its own recession and a series of financial crises. Given how long it took Europe to come to the aid of Greece, Tunisians shouldn’t hold their breath.

The U.S. Congress, increasingly in a tightfisted mood for plenty of good reasons (as well as bad ones), cuts aid to an Egyptian government that no longer measures up to all the demands that individual members of Congress consider to be paramount. Does the new government say the right things regarding Israel or Iran? Does it cooperate with the U.S. military, the Treasury Department and the FBI on counterterrorism measures? U.S. aid to Tunisia ended decades ago, and Congress will be in no mood to help a struggling newly elected but untested government. Wealthier Arab governments do not fill the gap of declining private-sector investment and U.S. aid.

Layoffs of workers accelerate. There is a downward spiral of violence by increasingly desperate workers, vigilantism by middle class families striving to protect what they have worked hard to build, and repression by government forces.

Finally, even the most progressive political reforms do not deliver the security and basic necessities that people decide they need more at the moment than political liberty. A free press is wonderful, but if it is too dangerous to walk down the street to buy a newspaper, the value is questionable. A man without a job with a family to feed often has a hard time focusing on the long-term benefits of democracy.

So are we in for Somalia on the Mediterranean? Probably not that bad. But, along with the enthusiasm that is all too natural for both the demonstrators and the representatives of Western media reporting, breathlessly, from Tahrir Square, let us take a large grain of salt. The U.S. media and armchair theoreticians of democracy in the United States will be able to walk away at the end of the day. The Tunisians and Egyptians will not. And the implications for the long-term interests of the people of Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East, as well as the United States and Western Europe, are not yet clear.

As a student in Egypt in 1965, I participated in a mass demonstration in Tahrir Square. I should note that it was in support of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the police did not use tear gas against us. Still, it was thrilling. My heart tells me to cheer on the current demonstrators. My head, and my experience in the region, say that Barack Obama’s administration has been right not to leap to the barricades. The United States can nudge and encourage, but the people of these countries, not just the autocratic rulers, will resist and resent a Made in America label.

This week, I was reminded of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, a French diplomat of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who served Louis XIV, Napoleon, and the Restoration monarchies and knew a few things about revolutions. Talleyrand instructed young French diplomats: "Surtout, pas trop de zèle." Literally, don’t be too zealous. Today, we would say, "Curb your enthusiasm."

It’s still good advice.

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