How Europe Can Help the Revolutions in the Middle East Succeed

By Michael Elliott

All revolutions have their own distinct trajectories, and any attempt to locate what is happening in the Middle East within the framework of what has gone before will get us only so far.

Still, history has some useful lessons. The first is, when revolutions happen, tolerate messiness. No revolution moves neatly from the streets to a peaceful, stable, new dispensation. The American Revolution didn't sort itself out until 1787 — in truth, not really until 1865. France went from the high-mindedness of 1789 to the Reign of Terror and then Bonapartism. After 1989, Russia's second revolution rapidly devolved from market liberalism to crony capitalism and then to legitimated authoritarianism. Along the way, sympathizers outside the revolutionary space lose heart. William Wordsworth rushed to France ("Bliss was it that dawn to be alive") but later deplored the militaristic turn of the revolution and ended up a grumbling rural conservative.

Everyone needs to be patient. In the Middle East, we are dealing with something novel. We knew how to think about the old power structures of the Middle East, oscillating between polarities of autocracy and Islamism. But now we are having to come to terms with a new source of strength: young people linked by technology to one another and to the outside world, whose frustrations and demands are principally economic in nature, not religious, anticolonialist or nationalist (at least, not in the sense of wanting to go out and fight someone else). Though we can't know how this new power source will organize itself — or, indeed, who will try to co-opt it — the economic nature of its grievances should give one heart. If this were an old-fashioned nationalist revolt, the risk that it would soon be in conflict with the interests of other nations would be much greater. But economic reform can be introduced (or sped up) in the Middle East without the process's destabilizing relations with others.

Second, remember that while leadership matters, institutions matter more. Some of the most successful transformations to democracy in modern times — Spain, Indonesia — have not had an obvious, charismatic leader. But all successful revolutions have institutional structures that enable radical habits to mature. Sometimes these will be political parties — like the ANC in South Africa or the historical socialist parties in Spain and Portugal. Sometimes they will be organized but informal groups, like the supporters of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. Sometimes a religious group does the trick, as the church did in Poland. It's when there is no institutional structure that revolutions go wrong or are co-opted by narrow groups for their own interest, as happened in Russia after 1989. In Egypt, the obviously strong institutions now are the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are making all the right noises, but they have their own agendas to pursue and interests to defend. Meanwhile, the new energy of the young is less organized, or at least less organized in a way that makes it easy for it to assume state power.

Third, if they are to succeed and contribute to regional and global stability, revolutionary states need to be welcomed into international clubs. In the European transformations from autocracy in the 1970s and 1990s, it's striking how important the promise of membership in the E.U. and NATO turned out to be. When there isn't such an offer from the outside, things can go wrong. There's a convincing narrative that argues that the great mistake the West made in the 1990s was shutting Russia out from international institutional arrangements.

So it's worth asking: What such offer can be made to the postrevolutionary states of the Middle East? Europe has a special responsibility here. The E.U. is the Arab Middle East's close neighbor and natural market. (In 2009, Egypt's trade with the E.U. was more than three times as valuable as that with the U.S.) If you're Tunisian, Algerian or Moroccan, you want to emigrate to Paris, not Pittsburgh. These are soccer societies, not baseball ones.

True, Europe has found it awfully hard to make a grand gesture to its Muslim neighbors. It has vacillated on E.U. membership for Turkey. And it's closing its doors to immigrants. But three years ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made much of the benefits that would come from a Mediterranean community that linked north and south. Like many of his ideas, it was a bit grandiose, and it has so far got little traction within the rest of the E.U. That doesn't mean it was wrong.
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