The revolutions sweeping across northern Africa and the Middle East could mark the beginning of a historic advance for democratic freedom – ranking in significance with milestones of liberty like the American Revolution of 1776 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Or these upheavals could end with one tyranny replacing another, as happened after the French Revolution of 1789 and may yet occur in post-Soviet Russia.
With protesters still filling the streets in Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere (and under violent attack in Iran and Libya), it is too soon to predict when or whether democratic reforms will transform the region.
But the victorious protesters in Tunisia and Egypt are already beginning to learn a key lesson from history: For freedom to triumph, democracy will not be enough.
As reported in The New York Times last week, newly liberated Tunisians are hotly debating the role of religion in their hoped-for democratic future. In a country that is 98 percent Muslim, some religious conservatives are calling for an end to liberal social policies, while many other Muslim Tunisians are taking to the streets demanding separation of mosque and state.
Meanwhile in Egypt, all eyes are on the Muslim Brotherhood. Will the once-banned group join efforts to create a pluralistic democracy committed to human rights (as Muslim Brotherhood representatives have promised)? Or will elections empower religious radicals to impose their vision of an Islamic state? Many Egyptians, including beleaguered Coptic Christians, are worried that democratic elections may end badly for minorities and dissenters.
Democracy is not only insufficient for building free societies; it can be dangerous and destructive if it leads to the tyranny of the majority. During the debate over ratification of our Constitution, James Madison warned in the Federalist Papers against “pure democracy,” arguing instead for a republic or representative democracy that would safeguard individual rights from majority rule.
For other American founders, even the republic established by the Constitution did not go far enough to protect inherent human rights, including religious liberty and freedom of expression, from the whims of the majority or the power of government. George Mason famously refused to sign the Constitution because it had no Bill of Rights guarding inalienable rights from government interference.
In 1791, Americans added a Bill of Rights, thus ensuring that fundamental rights could not be put to a popular vote.
That is why this wave of pro-democracy revolutions should be welcomed and supported by the United States if, and only if, the emerging governments are committed to protecting the freedom of expression, assembly and petition that people are struggling to exercise across the Arab world.
Unfortunately, America’s track record on support for human rights in the region is poor – and our advice on democratic freedom may not be credible to many of the protesters, especially the legions of young people fueling the rebellions. Our longstanding Faustian bargains with authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have served the aims of realpolitik, but often at the cost of compromising our principles and ideals.
Of course, the United States has legitimate economic and security interests in the Middle East – including ensuring the safety of Israel – that sometimes require unsavory alliances. But fear of what might come next has blinded us to the ugly ramifications of our support for repressive regimes.
Propping up dictators and collaborating with oppressive monarchies for so many decades has contributed to widespread suffering, fueled extremism and denied the aspirations of people longing to be free.
Now that the lid is off, the United States has a historic opportunity to help shape the future of emerging democracies by placing human rights closer to the center of our foreign policy, including providing economic and military assistance to those governments committed to democratic freedom.
The lesson of revolutions throughout history is clear: Without strong safeguards for universal human rights, democracy is not enough.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].