Egypt: Gaining Freedom After the Revolution
When Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's deeply entrenched brutal dictator of Egypt of 30 years, finally succumbed to pressure from protesters and resigned on February 11, 2011, I was elated. The Egyptian revolution – a secular, largely peaceful phenomenon – is one of a new kind: it was driven by technology, especially the Internet, spearheaded by young people, and respectful of the political, religious, and intellectual heterogeneity that must exist in a free society.
This revolution and the January 2011 successful overthrow in Tunisia of dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali have empirically and conclusively dispelled one of the major fears that previously motivated me to support US military intervention in Iraq. Back in 2003, I thought that contemporary totalitarian regimes simply had far too much firepower to be successfully overthrown by their own people. I was convinced then that, in order to succeed, any revolution in our time needed on its side a military force stronger than that of the oppressive regime. But this is no longer so. The peaceful defiance of the people is enough when it is cleverly organized, determined, armed with decentralized, networked technologies, and fueled by the unquenchable human aspirations toward liberty, prosperity, dignity, and progress. Indeed, in Egypt, the protesters managed to succeed despite the initial tendency of powerful external influences – especially the governments of the United States and Israel – to lean in the direction of supporting the regime. Rhetoric from the Obama administration, while half-heartedly praising the protesters' courage, also prioritized “regime stability” – i.e., the Mubarak status quo – above all. Indeed, the Obama administration wanted Mubarak's vice-president, the torturer-thug Omar Suleiman, who once headed the CIA's monstrous rendition program in Egypt, to become the country's new leader. Fortunately, the Egyptian people would have none of that.
I hope for more revolutions of this sort to come. In the Middle East, the collapse of two dictatorships may well set off a domino effect that will undermine the similarly oppressive regimes in Algeria, Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria. In an optimistic scenario – for instance as outlined by Llewelyn H. Rockwell, Jr. – the domino effect might spread past the Middle East and herald the end of an increasingly illiberal, abusive, and broken global political status quo.
But it is not enough just to overthrow an oppressive regime. The hardest work – achieving genuine freedom – begins after the revolution. History has had no shortage of revolutions, but most of them failed miserably at improving the lives and respecting the liberties of the people they were intended to benefit. In 1789-1794, the overthrow of the repressive Ancien Régime in France was followed by the bloodshed of the Jacobins' Reign of Terror. In 1917-1918, the hopelessly incompetent and authoritarian reign of the Romanov czars in Russia was ended, but the provisional liberal government could not withstand the onslaught of what would become one of the most murderous movements in history. In 1978-1979, an originally secular revolution in Iran overthrew the US-supported Shah Mohammed, only to bring a far more backward and totalitarian theocracy to power.
While oppressive regimes can do much harm, it is fallacious to attribute all the suffering and violations of liberties in a country to a small group of people at the top. A government cannot thrive unless it is at least tolerated by large numbers of its subjects. Support for a regime can come from massive popular backing, or, if that is absent, from a cultural acceptance of the regime as representative of “the way things are” – a pervasive fatalism and resignation. Moreover, even in times of reform, it is difficult for a government to truly be ahead of its time and culture; even reformist politicians are not radicals at the forefront of history. They cannot, in all but the rarest situations, drag their people into enlightenment. Indeed, what we actually observe in times of political change is that the evolving attitudes of the people compel reluctant politicians to accept reforms as the politicians see their base of support shifting and recognize the need to shift with it. Unfortunately, it is also not realistic to expect the removal of a single leader or an entire regime to, by itself, bring about a thoroughgoing respect for individual liberty in a country.
Mubarak's regime, like all tyrannies of past and present, was made possible by the cultural context on which it fed. With the technologically empowered younger generation in Egypt, exemplified by such tremendously forward-thinking activists as the Google executive Wael Ghonim, this culture has begun to change dramatically for the better. A senescent, ossified, militaristic, paternalistic ruling elite had fallen sufficiently out of touch with a younger generation that is far more liberal in the true sense of that word. And yet, there still exist clear reactionary aspects of Egyptian culture – from the Islamic fundamentalist strain to the non-negligible numbers of people who were willing to serve as Mubarak's torturers or to attack protesters on his behalf over the past month. In order for the Egyptian revolution to truly secure freedom and prosperity, the cultural environment of Egypt needs to further improve. The following are just some of the reforms that would facilitate such a salutary evolution.
● Liberalization of trade, markets, and investment: Trade fosters peace and refinement by informing individuals of what others who are unlike them have to offer for their benefit. Trade benefits all parties involved, while armed conflict, fueled by ethnic or national prejudices, is a negative-sum game. Freer trade and freer markets within Egypt can do wonders for the overwhelming majority of Egyptians by putting Western products – especially Western technologies – in their hands. As the revolution has demonstrated, the new decentralized technologies in particular are history's most effective tools for effectuating cultural change and awareness of injustice. An Egypt that is more open to global commerce would also become more cosmopolitan. Egyptians would become increasingly aware and appreciative of the ways in which foreign businesses, individuals, and cultures can enhance their standards of living through peaceful interaction. At the same time, Egyptians would recognize that their own institutions can be improved considerably by drawing on foreign institutions for inspiration. To achieve such improvements, Egyptians will need to overcome the socialistic, oligopolistic tendencies of their governments during the past 59 years.
● De-militarization: Ever since the revolution of 1952, Egypt has been under de facto military rule – with most of that time characterized by “states of emergency” where individual rights were completely abrogated. All of Egypt's presidents and high officials had been of a military background. Currently, an interim military council rules Egypt, and, while it has appeared to commit itself to a transition toward a freer government, part of that transition will involve a major shift toward civilian rule. In a truly free country, the military cannot be an avenue toward power; there must remain no doubt about its subordination to civilian authority. A society in which military leadership is the only or the major path toward political leadership is a society in which might makes right. Moreover, the historical record of military regimes' respect for individual rights is quite bleak indeed.
● Due process and inviolate rights: Mubarak's police-state repression was not unprecedented, and similar atrocities took place under the earlier reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser. As long as “states of emergency” are able to be announced and permitted to “suspend” rights that should be inalienable and absolute, a cultural fatalism regarding the most blatant abuses will persist. Most people do not actively support the torture and murder of peaceful civilians, but they will resign themselves to such atrocities if the abuses are sufficiently pervasive and long-standing. This is why there must be no tolerance for the arbitrary detention of Egyptians. The Egyptian legal system must be reformed as quickly as possible to abolish all arrests except for violent crimes against persons and property. Furthermore, there must be clear due-process protections written into a new constitution. Among those protections must be the right to be informed of the charges that form the basis for one's arrest, the right to a speedy and public trial, the right to legal representation, the right to confront one's accuser, and the presumption of innocence until guilt is demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. All categories of “political crimes” must be eliminated immediately. The new rights-respecting legal order must be rigorously enforced, police must be placed under strict surveillance by the courts and by civil society, and any “liberties” taken by police during interrogations must be met with swift reprisals – including the criminal prosecution of the offending policemen. These reforms can go a long way toward reversing a cultural fatalism with regard to human-rights abuses.
● Secularization: While Egypt's prior governments have been secular in the sense of not being strictly theocratic, the Middle East in general has a long way to go toward achieving truly tolerant, pluralistic societies. As long as large portions of the population continue to support the coercive enforcement of Sharia law, theocracy can emerge. Immediate reforms should achieve a clear separation of religion and politics by making it clear that no religious test may be established for political office, and no laws may be justified on religious grounds. Furthermore, the government must be prohibited from favoring or restricting any religious belief or non-coercive religious practice. If religion is not imposed by force, then commerce, technology, and cultural globalization should over time diminish religious fanaticism to levels sufficiently low as to not threaten the continued existence of a free society. At the same time, care must be taken not to fuel fanaticism by restricting or prohibiting Islamic organizations. Organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood have only been driven to increased fanaticism as a result of decades-long persecution in Egypt. If they are allowed to engage in peaceful activities and to espouse their beliefs without the threat of shutdown, torture, imprisonment, and execution, they may soften and become more open to freedom and cultural heterogeneity over time.
In a sense, the larger revolution in Egypt has only begun. The crucial question is whether it will end in still more barbarism and bloodshed – or whether it will inaugurate a new enlightenment and a new flowering of human freedom in the Middle East.
G. Stolyarov II is an actuary, science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. He holds the highest Clout Level (10) possible on Associated Content and is one of Associated Content's Page View Millionaires. Mr. Stolyarov has also written a science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, a non-fiction treatise, A Rational Cosmology, and a play, Implied Consent. See his YouTube videos and G + W Audio Broadcasts, a new series of intellectual conversations by Mr. Stolyarov and his wife, Wendy. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at email@example.com.
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