Dictators. Guillotines. Snipers. Place de la Concorde. Tahrir Square. Liberté. Hurriyah. The French Revolution. The Arab Spring. Both started with a populace that was fed up with its oppressors and strived for a more equal government. Both led to tumultuous changes often resulting in blood spilt and lives lost.
And while the former resulted in years more of uncertainty for it’s people, the latter is seeming to follow in that direction. Even though the two movements are 220 years apart, the motives, events and results of both are strikingly similar. Edmund Burke was one of the few who rose up against the revolution and predicted the difficulty France was going to face. Can his philosophy be applied to the Middle East today?
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke writes that the art of government and state building isn’t a priori; it cannot be practiced successfully without learning from experience. His philosophy is that changes in government should happen gradually, so it gives time for the politicians to survey the results of their methods and proceed accordingly. Radical reform, like a revolution does not allow for this process. In France, the idea of change ignited the citizenry. In the politically charged environment heated mindsets led from one mind-boggling event to another, veering sharply off the originally intended course as there was no chance for people to assess what had happened and put a break on the wheels of violence.
Unlike the French, the Arabs had many predecessors to learn from. As an article from Business Insider points out, just a century earlier the Nahda Movement in Egypt tried to achieve reform towards more liberal principles. While the movement did succeed in destabilizing the current government, right wing Islamists seized control. They took advantage of the low levels of education to brainwash the citizens with their ideals. As demagogues fell across the Middle East in the Arab Spring, they too were replaced by right wing groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or the military.
Why did the process repeat? Instead of learning from experience, as Burke had prescribed, and analyzing that the root cause was a lack of education, the Arabs were intent on just toppling their governments. As Burke predicted, in scenarios where there is no chance for reflection “very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions.” While there was more history they could have learned from, the citizens ignored the past and it resulted in the same bloody fate of the French.
But is Burke also correct on his criticism of the motives of these revolts? A central part of his argument is that a system of manners is necessary along with laws, to guide the citizens of the nation and help them appreciate it’s traditions:
“to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” If the system of manners includes accepting the superiority of the nobility, then so be it. But what Burke misses out on is that revolts happen because people believe that their country is not lovely as it is. The Third estate, in France which comprised of all the commoners was the largest but possessed the least amount of land and economic power. The citizens were frustrated with stark contrast of the luxury they saw in Versailles and the poverty they lived in.
On the surface the Middle East is growing wealthier, but all the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few oil magnates. Statistics show, that in Egypt unemployment rates soared up to 30% and the average man has to live for less than $2 a day. And it went beyond money. The video below is a testimony from a reporter who had been captured in Syria where he describes the atrocities of the Assad regime. So how is it then Burke can say that the citizens should still respect the authority of Assad and “love” a nation where they find no solace from the government? And how is it that Burke could say that the French should not have revolted?
The collapse of the Soviet Union lead to many more years of difficulty for the citizens of those nations, many of which who still live in oppressive regimes. But if you ask them now, none of them would want to go back, because there are signs of progress. Things did not just magically get better after the American Revolution. Our forefathers had to deal with years of internal strife before they could make the nation what it is today. And in France, it took more than a hundred years for the first stable democratic government to form. Burke is right, some of the ways in these revolutions happen are shortsighted and do not represent sound reasoning. The Arabs should have learnt from the failures of previous movements to establish democracy. But if Burke implies that Arabs should remain content with the injustices in their world today and forget about the Arab Spring, history proves him wrong.