Everyone seems to have become an advocate of universal human freedom. We are told (today by Barack Obama, but previously by George W. Bush) that this is a basic human desire, no less prevalent in the Middle East than in our own land. But is it?
People seem to forget that it was the Egyptian military that deposed Mubarak. Nor are they distressed that the generals subsequently dismissed the parliament. Free and honest democratic elections have been promised, and they are confident these will occur.
People seem to forget the American Revolution. George Washington was offered the monarchy, but refused. He even persuaded his officers not to march against Congress for unpaid salaries. Americans believed then, and certainly now, that the military should be under civilian control.
Yet is this what the Egyptian generals believe? Remember, Mubarak was a general who once promised free and fair elections. Without a tradition of democracy, people can dance in the streets, mouth the correct words, and yet what they desire may never come to fruition.
Democracy has several prerequisites. The first is that when elections occur, the losers step down. No matter how much they despise the winners, they must allow them to take office. In the United States this happens every few years, but in the Arab world it almost never does. Politicians like Mubarak routinely rig elections, or, as occurred in Algeria, when they lose they simply declare the results null and void.
Then there is the matter of compromise. Compromise is difficult. Giving up part of what you want so that the other side can get some of what it wants can feel like a defeat. People who fight for a cause can be very stubborn. This is true in America, but is even more true where democracy has never existed.
When the U.S. Democrats won an historic electoral victory two years ago, they were in no mood to compromise. They decided that they had to votes to steamroller through any legislation they desired — irrespective of the opinions of the opposition or the public. And they did, as with the stimulus and Obamacare.
But then there was another election. In it, the American public expressed its judgment of this lack of compromise. It decided that extremism was not wanted. Moderation may seem wishy-washy; nevertheless it is built into our political DNA.
The same is not true in Egypt. Not long ago, a poll asked Egyptians what they thought of apostasy. By a margin of four-to-one, they affirmed their belief that individuals who convert out of Islam deserve the death penalty. If they decide to become Christians, they must be killed.
This is not democratic tolerance. This does not demonstrate a willingness to compromise. In Europe and America, people are free to become Muslims, but the reverse is not possible in the Middle East. In the Middle East, there is only one correct choice, hence Egyptians are right to worry about their future.
Does anyone actually believe that the crowds in Egyptian cities were inclined to tolerate opposing opinions? Does anyone believe that their rock-throwing, chanting and Molotov cocktails will disappear in favor of reasoned arguments between political parties if there is an election of which they disapprove?
Tolerating a loyal opposition and making compromises are cultural accomplishments that take time to evolve. They did not take root in Germany after World War I, with the result that Hitler took power. They are currently having a difficult time taking root in Iraq, where homemade bombs continue to take lives — despite the presence of American troops.
Why then the optimism that democracy has suddenly blossomed in the hearts of millions of Egyptians?
Melvyn L. Fein. Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.