A recent interview by MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski of Harvard professor and Newsweek columnist Niall Ferguson was demonstrative of the media’s inability look beyond the current glory of Egypt’s revolutionary successes. While discussing Ferguson's most recent column in which he criticizes the Obama administration for what he considers a clumsy and sometimes disjointed response to the situation in Egypt, Brzezinski appeared to be stunned at the suggestion that despite what she was seeing on the ground, the current images of celebration and joy could be deceptive as long-term indicators of Egypt’s direction. She described the situation variously as “so far, so good” and as going “pretty damn well”. Unfortunately, such superficiality from the media is to be expected, but if Brzezinski and her colleagues would take a moment to look at the track record of 20th and 21st century political revolutions, they would quickly realize that their celebrations are premature.
In recent history, America has had high hopes that a democratic wave would overtake nations that had once been governed autocratically. Despite our best diplomatic efforts we have repeatedly seen that nations with little to no liberal tradition tend to reverse course after initial gains.
Russia serves as an example of this phenomenon. When the Soviet Union fell, many believed that the former super power would eschew it’s autocratic past. In recent years however, all indicators point to a return to an oppressive style of rule as the Russian state fumbles through it's attempts to bring about meaningful liberal reform. Fundamental freedoms including press and speech, both of which Russia had little experience with either before or after Communist rule, are withering under attacks by government autocrats.
Likewise, former Soviet satellites, which prior to having been annexed into the Soviet Empire were politically organized in a multitude of ways, have met with just as varying levels of success. While some have acclimated to liberal reform, others have not fared as well. Those failures to acclimate have been especially spectacular in nations that had little liberal influence. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, for example, have levels of internal oppression that rival those of their days as Soviet clients.
Afghanistan, once celebrated by the left as the “war of necessity”, has also shown a dangerous backslide. While it’s been given a leg up in terms of financial aid and security assistance by the world’s finest military forces, a credible central authority has had a difficult time establishing itself. The people of Afghanistan, not to mention its political leaders, have no frame of reference that would allow it as a society to adopt western reforms. The theocrats that once wielded power from Kabul were merely replaced by kleptocrats who are hanging on only by the grace of generous international largess. Despite the brutality of the Taliban, the ousted movement appears to be making a comeback amidst the crisis.
It’s clear that the media would like to hand President Obama a victory after what can only be described as, at best, a mixed record on foreign policy but their blind optimism appears less like childish enthusiasm, and more like an abused spouse who keeps returning to their abuser, assuring themselves that this time will be different. Egypt, like most other nations in the middle east, have very little in their political DNA to suggest that an attempt to supplant their current system with a liberal democracy will produce anything more than, at best, a government marginally less oppressive than the one that proceeded it.
Whether political changes are brought about by popular uprising or military intervention, the odds tell us that it is best that we keep our expectations in check. The odds against Egypt's success are by no means insurmountable, but unless the media replace their pom-poms with their thinking caps, they risk being very disappointed by the long term outcome of the Egyptian revolution.