David Hoffman

The Arab spring

First the revolution, then the reality. It has been exhilarating to watch the Arab spring, spreading from Tunis to Cairo, to Manama, Benghazi and elsewhere. These images of people demanding simple freedoms and fresh air after decades of autocracy are reminiscent of the collapse of Communism two decades ago. Then, too, there was a sense ...

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

First the revolution, then the reality.

It has been exhilarating to watch the Arab spring, spreading from Tunis to Cairo, to Manama, Benghazi and elsewhere. These images of people demanding simple freedoms and fresh air after decades of autocracy are reminiscent of the collapse of Communism two decades ago. Then, too, there was a sense of liberation from arbitrary, suffocating rulers. There was a sense of enormous possibility if individual initiative could be set free, if democracy and markets could take hold.

But for those feeling liberated in the Arab world today, a caution: to realize your dreams is going to be a lot harder than it has been so far. It is going to be painfully, maddeningly, frustratingly difficult. One of the useful lessons you can draw from the collapse of Communism is that
tearing down the old order is really just the first step of revolution. What follows has to be built brick-by-brick, may take a generation and is not guaranteed to succeed.

In Russia, Boris Yeltsin excelled at the revolution, at toppling the old order, but didn’t devote nearly enough time and attention to building a new society with workable institutions. He was brilliant at demolishing the socialist state, which he knew quite well, and he intuitively understood something about the spirit of freedom. He took a lot of criticism yet didn’t respond by shutting down the free press. However, when it came to building pillars of a new order, Yeltsin didn’t entirely grasp what needed to be done.

One result of this: Russia’s democracy was born weak, and then easily rolled back by his successor. Had it been stronger, perhaps it would not have been so easy for Vladimir Putin to cancel elections for governors, intimidate smaller opposition parties, muzzle the national television stations, and force the oligarchs into subservience. Competition is the oxygen of democracy, and without it, rivals to power cannot survive. Russia’s zig-zag progress is just one of many lessons in the post-Soviet years of the treacherous course that lies ahead for the Arab world.

In Egypt and elsewhere, to succeed you will need workable laws, institutions, parties, a free press, and unfettered voting, among other things. But these are primarily tools for change, not the final goals. What you also need — and what is often not so evident at the outset — is to bring along the mindset of people. Let’s call it political culture: accumulated tradition, experience, history, beliefs and much more — all of which come into play when people choose whether to trust the system you build, to participate in it, and to accept its verdicts.

Life in a new democracy is a riot of different competitions, of groups vying for riches, power, influence and attention. If unregulated, the contests become just a riot. They need to be tamed by casting ballots, rule of law, and a robust civil society, which means many clear channels flowing back and forth between people and their rulers. These channels have been clogged or nonexistent for a long time. Just having an election is not enough, not nearly enough. You have to build political culture, on top of the one that you inherit from the past. Inevitably, the revolution won’t meet everyone’s hopes, and that’s the key moment. People need to see a pathway forward, a system that works, that they can believe in, even if it does not entirely overcome their current discontents.

When I was covering Russia’s 1996 election, a young banker told me he was supporting Yeltsin’s re-election, despite the several years of turmoil. "We are in the middle of a raging river rapids," he said. "We can go back, or we can stubbornly go ahead. In the worst case, if we go back, we will lose everything we’ve already gained." Yeltsin, he said, "is going to the other shore, where I want to go."

In the Arab spring, you’ve just stepped into the raging river. Now don’t lose sight of the other shore.

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