January 25 marked four years since the beginning of Egypt’s Arab Spring, and the massive demonstrations that followed. But Eric Trager notes in a Politico article that Egypt’s uprising didn’t really work—it didn’t bring the peace and prosperity that its people were hoping for:
The story of Egypt’s 2011 revolt is often told in terms of the youthful revolutionary activists, who used their street smarts and social media savvy to mobilize the masses from multiple directions and overwhelm the police in downtown Cairo, as I witnessed on that day. But Egypt’s “Arab Spring” is equally the story of an autocratic state’s breakdown. …
Four years later, this remains the ultimate legacy of Egypt’s uprising. While the activists’ revolutionary dreams were never realized, Egypt’s state broke down further, and remains quite broken today. As a result of this experience, many Egyptians are so fearful of change that they are now content to live with their broken state, since they view it as preferable to further collapse.
The problems that existed before the Arab Spring have hardly gone away—as Ursula Lindsey writes for The Arabist,
I appreciate the desire to offer some encouragement to Egyptian citizens who supported January 25 … I also agree that we are not just back to the old days — there was a huge rupture, and even if the hopes it raised were defeated, the repressive techniques employed to achieve this (media propaganda; Saudi subsidies; massive repression; a shameful politicization of the judiciary) are destabilizing and seemingly untenable in the long-term. But I take a much darker view of the kind of days we’re in. People used to say that the revolution had brought down the wall of fear and it could never be back up; I think the army and police have done a great reconstruction job. Virtually every institution in Egypt is worse off than it was four years ago; a big segment of society has been complicit — out of fear, ignorance, self-interest — with the falsification of its own history and with granting impunity for state injustice and violence.
Why did Egypt’s uprising fail so badly? I remember when the Arab Spring was first stirring and growing four years ago: at the time, I was reading The Federalist Papers, particularly focusing on Madison’s writings in Federalist #10. Madison wrote about the dangers presented to democracy by faction and insurrection—but he believed geographical distance, coupled with societal and cultural differences, would counter the potential dangers presented by factious movements. The distances caused by these divisions (in regards to interest, time, and opportunity) would prevent people from 1) gathering into too large an interest group, and/or 2) acting out of passion rather than considered reason.
Madison could not have imagined the impact that modern technology and social media could have on the mitigating power of geographic and cultural disparities. The Arab Spring was a pop cultural movement perpetuated by the uniting force of Twitter and Facebook. In its populist appeal, it overcame a lot of the cultural and geographic controls that help prevent tyrannical movements. And in its wake, some of Madison’s worst fears came true.
One cannot ignore the effect the Arab Spring had on Egypt’s minorities: specifically, its Coptic Christian population. Egypt’s Copts have undergone a lot of persecution in the wake of the Arab Spring—the passionate belligerence that emanated from Tahrir Square was not just directed toward the government. The word “democracy,” according to Egypt’s rebels, constituted something quite different from the representative democracy the West expected and envisioned. The rebels wanted majority rule—but without the mitigating factors presented by temperance, prudence, and a diversity of leadership, the movement quickly escalated toward fundamentalism and Sharia law. It did not help that the rebels were strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafites, and other fundamentalist groups. Of course, there were more liberal voices in the Arab Spring movement—especially early on—but they were drowned, as time progressed, by the majority influence. As Madison wrote, they were a “majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” (Emphasis added.)
This shift was partly a result of the dominant media voices, serving to unify the Egyptian populace. But it was also partly resultant of something Alexis de Tocqueville explained very well in Democracy in America: namely, that there must be specific mores in place for democracy to work. You have to have a specific sort of people: people who are energetic in the exercise of their principles and rights as citizens, who are appropriately skeptical of authority, and who are prudent—considerate of future generations, not just present concerns. These things, unfortunately, were not present in Egypt—an understanding and appreciation for the common good, for the diverse needs and interests of the entire people, was not present.
Thus, Egypt has, in many ways, reverted to the authoritarian rule it suffered from before. In a sense, this has been a relief for minorities like the Coptic Christians, who are hoping for a more tolerant and safe future. But it is also tragic to see that those who clamored for democracy only helped bring about chaos and persecution, followed by an almost complete reversal to how things were before.
Egypt is not alone in this struggle. Our own society, bound together by social media and increasingly populist inclinations, can often exercise an influence that is quite tyrannical in its influence and scope. So how do we mitigate this problem?
First, we must emphasize the education and exercise of virtue. Without a virtuous populace—as Tocqueville wrote—democracy cannot work. This would include education in the importance of religious freedom and respect, both of which enable us to love our neighbor, even when he or she disagrees with us.
Part of this education must also consist in cultivating a populace interested in the common good: not merely looking at one’s own temporary interests, but focusing also on the long-term needs of one’s community and nation. This is something that Tocqueville thought democracies were most prone to lose, because their very construction encouraged short-term thinking, fixation on the passions, and consumerism. He believed that religion could counter this by providing people with a more long-term view: a desire to seek out the good of future generations, not merely the goods of the current moment. But, as we have seen in Egypt and even recently in Paris, we need a certain type of religious observance in order for this to work—one that, as stated above, encompasses respect and love for the other, one that is truly desirous of the common good.
Egypt has suffered much in the past four years, in the chaos and upheaval that followed the Arab Spring. But the lessons they—and we—have learned in its aftermath can truly make a difference in the way we understand and embrace revolution in the future. It can help us understand what, exactly, democracy is—and what sort of mores and values it needs in order to work.