The Egyptians have demonstrated a clear desire for democracy and this could have important consequences not just for their country, or even the Middle East. The Egyptians might just save democracy itself.
Ok, it’s easy to get carried away, especially when there are a handful of tricky questions that are still unanswered. We don’t really know what the army will do, we don’t really know how secular the eventual government will be, and we don’t really know how Egypt will re-calibrate its relationship with its neighbours and the wider world. But the very fact that the Egyptians have overthrown a dictator and made it clear that they wish to be governed democratically could be very good news for anyone who thinks democracy is a good thing.
There is an excellent book called What is Your Dangerous Idea? (edited by John Brockman), which is a collection of short essays by key thinkers across a number of disciplines. The contributors are given the following prompt and encouraged to let their professional imaginations run wild:
“The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?”
One particularly good essay is Democracy May Be On Its Way Out by a theoretical physicist called Haim Harari. Harari argues that globalisation leads to multinational structures, which eventually leads to the world becoming “one political unit”. Within that unit, Harari explains, anti-democratic forces form the majority because of demographic patterns: the populations of anti-democratic societies are increasing faster than the populations of democratic societies.
Harari’s uncomfortable conclusion is that democracy, humanity’s least bad system of governing itself, is dying and that we might need to invent a better system.
Pretty sobering stuff. Unless we can save democracy, that is.
Will the Egyptian revolution be that saviour? Maybe. That revolution followed the Tunisian revolution and it’s logical to conclude that people in neighbouring countries might be inspired by these events. There has been talk of a domino effect but it could be more of an avalanche, as the previous triumphs provide ever greater inspiration and confidence to onlookers living under tyranny (assuming the tyrannies they live under permit them to look on).
Both revolutions have also shown how quickly change can be effected when people are organised, committed and armed (with modern but very basic communications technology). The length of each of these revolutions was measured in days.
The bulk of the geopolitical analysis has focused on the Middle East but is there any reason why these seismic events could not trigger aftershocks further afield? It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture a nervous Minister of Information pacing up and down his Beijing office, ordering his staff to check the integrity of the so-called Great Firewall to ensure that search results for “Egypt Protests” are managed appropriately. Who knows, people in the UK might even be given the right to protest once again.
Of course, it does not follow that when a dictator is overthrown, what is left behind is a perfectly functioning democracy, or any type of democracy. Democracies are not born; they evolve. Their DNA is complex but it contains, as a minimum, free and fair elections, accountable public officials, protection of human rights, and the rule of law.
The Egyptians have taken a bold and essential step in the direction of democracy, though. Let us hope that others will follow. If not, we might all have to think of a better system than democracy. “Dictatorship 2.0”, perhaps.