Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela and of course Ukraine. The first few years of this decade have been gripped by revolutionary upheaval. Its spectre haunts the new set of emerging markets. But why have things been so difficult?
We might well have been lulled by grand theories of “waves” of democratisation that saw regimes in Eastern Europe, south east Asia and Latin America fall, and elected governments replace them. We probably always knew that democracy involved a lot more than just elections, and ignored rampant corruption, unreformed security services, weak civil societies, populist political leadership and the survival of a winner-takes-all political culture. It was too easy to declare this or that country a democracy when it had yet to develop into one. Turkey is the most egregious example here: so keen were people to find a Muslim democracy they saw in Recep Erdogan’s AK an Islamic imitation of Adenauer’s Christian Democrats (Egypt’s mid-century parliamentary republic or contemporary Indonesia would have served better).
But mostly we forgot, or chose not to remember, that democracy, like marriage, is bloody hard work. It takes time and a lot of trial and error to build the right institutions and develop the habits of peaceful political competition. Most of all, it needs leaders who believe in or are forced to limit themselves to what the American revolutionaries called “mild government.”
To understand the appeal of mild government, put yourself in the position of Mohammed Bouazzizi, the Tunisian trader – we would call him a small businessman here – who burnt himself alive after being harassed by the police for one bribe or spurious permit too many, and sparked off the Arab spring. Or the Russian businessman who was told by a government inspector that, from now on, all the crates of spirits he was storing had now to be raised above the ground on new pallets higher than the ones that had hitherto been used (a regulation that could be overlooked of course in exchange for an appropriate consideration). Or imagine that to get your children into university, you are told by the local party boss, an ignoramus ex-militia thug, that it really would be a good thing to organise for the ruling party.
A mild government lets you get on with your life, establishes clear rules to keep the peace, and provides services roughly commensurate with the resources at its disposal. Its officials don’t treat you as a source of extra pay, and politicians don’t use the state to amass wealth or to mobilize people for projects that imagine they will transform society.
That’s why revolutions for mild govemment: for freedom, and to throw the thieving bastards out, often command broad, but extremely fleeting, support. They lack what Lenin called a vanguard of committed full time revolutionaries willing to brave death to transform their society, as Edmund Burke put it, “upon a theory.” Mostly, this is a good thing. Committed revolutionaries usually exceed the regimes they depose in murder, torture and theft.
But it also means the revolts are weak. Not everyone is as brutal as Assad, who drove his people into armed insurrection. It can be easy enough to buy off a proportion of the opposition and intimidate the rest with some selective torture and prison (as Venezuela has done). Or for ideological extremists to hijack popular discontent with plans to turn the country upside down. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who were caught flat-footed by the removal of Mubarak did just this, until enough people demanded the army return as the lesser of two evils. Or for nervous neighbours to prop up the regime or subvert its successors. Saudi Arabia’s support for Egypt’s military has been as unstinting as Moscow’s troublemaking in Kiev since the Orange Revolution in 2004. Putin may well, by threatening to invade beyond the Crimea, have given Ukrainians enough reason this time to carry on a unified struggle, where before they would quite likely have returned to bickering over how to divide the spoils of office. It will be quite an irony if his brinkmanship ends up forging a new Ukrainian public spirit.
The people in the Maidan, and Tahrir and Caracas and even in Gezi park were not, in the main, political activists. They wanted their governments to behave with basic decency, avoid major public theft and the constant seizure of their interests and lives to be put to the service of officials’ bank accounts and political ideology. They came out in support of an essentially conservative kind of revolution. It remains to be seen whether, outside Tunisia, they will be able to prevail.