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THE FOOL’S GOLD OF REVOLUTION

Independence Day is a time Americans can take pride in our nation’s gift to the world of the principle of representative government, which has by now been adopted by about sixty percent of nations.  But we might also feel a twinge of conscience at the harm we did in 1776 by giving the idea of “revolution” a good name.  In truth, ours would have been better labeled a secession: no one aimed to overthrow King George, just to escape him.  Ever since, the world has been plagued with revolutions, and while a few have been emancipatory, on the whole they have brought far more grief than benefit to mankind—and continue to do so.

The American rising soon sparked the French Revolution, which, after much guillotining, ended in the crowning of a new emperor, Napoleon, and the unleashing of a war that engulfed all of Europe.  Both 1848 and 1871 witnessed new internecine bloodlettings in Europe, all for naught.  But the revolutionary tragedies of the nineteenth century were nothing compared to those of the twentieth in which the Russian, Chinese, Indochinese, Cuban and Iranian revolutions exacted unspeakable tolls in human life and freedom.

Today, in the twenty-first century, the mystique of “revolution” inexplicably retains its luster, and this stands as one of the obstacles to a happy outcome to the “Arab awakening.”  For the last year and a half, while the Egyptian military has been maneuvering to protect its autonomy and perks and the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists have been mobilizing their forces at the polls, the wonderful legions of freedom-seekers who brought down the old regime have been so intoxicated with the thought of having made a “revolution” that they undertook little of the real work needed to create a free country.

While the Islamists prepared for parliamentary elections, the activists obsessed over prosecuting the Mubarak family and recouping its supposed wealth.  While the military issued decree after bewildering decree reshaping the political process, the activists replied with feckless threats to fill Tahrir Square once again, although the Egyptian public had lost patience with such disruptions.  The implicit assumption seemed to be that having pulled off a revolution, Egyptians were now magically entitled to freedom and prosperity.

In reality, freedom is something that has to be built in the form of governing institutions and constitutional guarantees that protect citizens from each other and from government and in the form of political parties, journalists and opinion leaders diligent in freedom’s defense.  And prosperity has to be earned by accretion, through hard work and wise investment.

It is true that Egyptians were ruled by a dictator, and they had a natural right to overthrow him.  Fortunately, they were able to do so peacefully.  In nearby Syria, a far harsher dictator closed the door to peaceful change, forcing the opposition to resort to arms, thus making a beneficent outcome more remote.

In these countries and others of the region, people would do well to think of revolution not as a glorious achievement but as an extreme and dangerous medical procedure.  It might give you a new lease on life, but it might kill you or leave you worse off.  At best, the road to health afterwards will be long and arduous.

This post was written by Joshua Muravchik, Fellow in Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute.