If you read between the lines of history, the real meaning of the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense by Thomas Paine was that the most vital action a newly-elected government must make after overthrowing a dictator is to prepare for the next elections.
“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil”
Thomas Paine – January 1776
People in the democratic world should take a supportive and understanding stance when it comes to the newly freed people in Arab Spring countries as they seek to accomplish the herculean task of democracy building. The governments they are forming are like those everywhere else, a necessary evil at best. The wrong path towards another government of intolerable evil could clearly be dangerous in a region so often prone to dysfunctional leadership. We must help these countries to focus on ensuring the creation of an election system that can survive many repeat elections in the future. It is literally the only way to guarantee no dictator can rise to power again. The mistakes made in the 2006 Palestinian elections, where the democratic system was discredited and future elections suspended, is a disaster scenario for the newly democratic countries. The Muslim Brotherhood won elections and now should be given the chance to govern Egypt. But the democratic world can work to ensure that when the time comes, the Egyptian people have more chances to vote on who would govern them.
Having free and fair elections is a difficult thing in itself but several Arab nations have now shown it can be done. Elections in Tunisia and Egypt have been largely free and fair contests. Yet, history has shown that the existing democratic world has not always acted with its best interests in mind when it comes to new embryonic transitions to democracy.
When Islamist Hamas won legitimate legislative elections in Palestinian National Authority in 2006, the democratic world led by George W. Bush turned against the new government immediately, withholding both economic and political support for that Palestinian government. The Palestinians had voted for Hamas mostly out of contempt for the corruption of the old guard Fatah movement that was in power. Fatah was similar to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who benefited from being compared to the Mubarak brand of dictatorial leadership. Had the democratic world acted differently then, they may have accomplished what should have been their central goal: keep the democratic election process alive.
Hamas, as the elected representatives of the people, should have had not only the responsibility to govern, as they have been doing in Gaza since 2006 anyway, but also the responsibility to the Palestinian people to have the next scheduled elections. These could have been elections that Hamas could have lost, but the time for elections came and passed without action. It is now six years since the Hamas victory, and currently no future elections are planned. Compare this to the U.S., where federal elections occur every two years or other parliamentary systems such as Canada where elections can be called twice in one year.
Rediscovering the Common Sense of Thomas Paine
The Muslim Brotherhood, like Hamas, is an organization that has a history of violence but it is also important in the context of the new Islamist governments in the Arab Spring countries to have historical perspective. It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine what it would be like if one of the democratic processes in these countries led to a country with a human rights record similar to the United States when it was formed. Imagine if a country was formed today that had a gigantic race-based slave agriculture industry and was also driving another race to near extinction through constant genocidal actions.
The founding of the U.S. was a tremendous achievement for democratic governance, but it does not mean that government policy was instantly wise. The stability of the U.S. doesn’t come from a perfect history of human rights or even avoidance of war; it comes from 220 years of elections being held on time accompanied by constant iterative improvements in human rights. People in Arab Spring countries, over time, through repeated elections, would find the same stability over a long period of time, just like the experience of the other older existing democracies.
When the Muslim Brotherhood takes power in Egypt, much more restraint and understanding must be shown from the democratic world. For decades under Mubarak’s dictatorship, we heard his government make the claim, often on U.S. television, that we should not wish for democracy in Egypt because radicals would take over. Yet, as we have seen, the people of Egypt want the Muslim Brotherhood to lead them much more than they ever wanted Mubarak. Policy makers in democratic countries must accept the Muslim Brotherhood as the real representatives of the people of Egypt and not repeat the mistakes made in Palestine across the entire Arab world. The most vital action a newly-elected democratic government must make after overthrowing a dictator is to prepare for the next elections. Hopefully, over time and with some luck, it will gradually become possible for Arab citizens to see their politicians in the same honorable light as American citizens see our politicians: as a necessary evil.