No Overnight Miracles

Democracy can take hold only after long, complex processes involving partnerships between opposing groups and the creation of a tradition of civil society.

Both remote and recent history show that it is relatively easy to topple a tyrannical regime, but much harder to establish and maintain a stable democracy. There can be many reasons for unexpected eruptions of unrest - opposition to corruption and ineffectiveness, growing awareness that rulers care only for themselves and not the masses and, sometimes, a feeling that rulers have weakened or grown old and lost their strength and vigor.

Usually this does not happen when a regime is at the peak of its abilities or when its system of oppression is effective: The mass demonstrations that toppled a series of communist regimes did not happen in the days of Stalin's cruel oppression, but rather after his successors had loosened the reins a bit, some out of weakness (like Brezhnev ), and some out of openness (like Gorbachev ).

Historical turning points like these are hard to predict in advance, but they are able to sweep masses along and topple stunned regimes. However, the formation of a democratic regime is not a dramatic, instant event, but rather a long series of processes requiring gradual steps, long-term partnerships of groups opposed to one another and social solidification, and these things do not happen overnight.

The dramatic events of the French Revolution did succeed in toppling the absolute monarchy, but its immediate outcome was years of public executions at the guillotine, Jacobin terror, an ugly and corrupt reaction and a new despotic regime in the form of the Napoleonic Empire. It was nearly a century after the 1789 revolution before France finally achieved a stable democratic regime.

After the fall of communism in Russia, foolish disciples of liberal, capitalist messianism prophesied about what philosopher Francis Fukuyama called "the end of history." But instead of democracy and a liberal free market, what emerged under Vladimir Putin was a neo-authoritarian regime, which represses any political alternative, effectively controls the economy and uses the legal system to suppress the opposition.

The successful transition to democracy and a market economy in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary was possible because these countries had a tradition (though partial and not always successful ) of parliamentary democracy, pluralism, tolerance and a multi-party system. In short: They possessed the foundations of a civil society, which is the only basis upon which it is possible to form an active and stable democracy. All of this was absent in Russia.

The heart leaps at the courage of the masses - many of them young people - who seem to have taken the fate of the land of the Nile in their hands, and are demanding freedom and justice for themselves, their society and their state. It is no wonder the demonstrations have captivated most of the Western media, which are thrilled by the sight of a young generation, some of it educated and English-speaking, which knows how to use Facebook and Twitter, just like us.

President Hosni Mubarak's regime has come to its end. Without a doubt it was a despotic regime, though moderately so as compared with the Syrian regime or that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But the notion that now democracy will dawn because that is what the demonstrators are saying - or at least what Mohamed ElBaradei is saying in fluent English - should not be taken for granted.

One possibility is that some version or other of a military dictatorship will come to power, and in the name of "law and order" will suppress the riots, depict the army as the savior of the nation, accept some of the popular demands, especially those related to the economy, and perhaps also adopt some of the leaders of the protest into its fold. It is even conceivable that ElBaradei would assume the position of foreign minister or prime minister in such circumstances. Similar things have happened.

Another possibility is a descent into chaos and bedlam, with elections scheduled in a few months, while the phenomenon of "looting" spreads and residents of wealthy neighborhoods organize in response. The possibility of riots in a class context should not be dismissed: The people shouting "democracy" and "freedom" today in Tahrir Square do not all see eye-to-eye concerning the division of the national income. Egypt's impressive economic growth during Mubarak's era, as happens during times of accelerated capitalist development, has only increased the gap between rich and poor.

Mubarak's oppressive regime prevented the formation of effective opposition parties. The small, official opposition parties do not have the infrastructure or the experience to move and recruit the masses. In effect, they are perceived as collaborators with the old regime. Apart from the army - and the ruling party, which has a good chance of disappearing in the next election - the only effective organization in Egyptian society is the Muslim Brotherhood. Until now, its members have behaved with praiseworthy circumspection, but their commitment to democratic processes - and not just to the first election in which they might become the leading party - is not to be taken for granted. Replication of the Turkish experience of an Islamic party is not automatic.

It is possible that things will happen gradually after an interim period marked by great hopes but difficulties in fulfilling them. It is important to remember that the establishment of a stable democracy is not the inevitable or the only possible outcome of the toppling of Mubarak's regime.

The United States could increase its economic aid to Egypt in order to reward democracy and "encourage the moderates." There are already initial signs that Washington is trying to create a relationship with ElBaradei. The results could boomerang, however. The speed with which President Barack Obama shook off the man who had been a longtime strategic ally of the United States does not indicate that the current administration has a deeper understanding of the historical processes in the region than President George W. Bush did. Obama's predecessor believed it was possible to export democracy to Iraq on the tips of American bayonets. The two men are very different but both are imbued with the messianic American belief in democracy's automatic victory; indeed, that was the approach they took to Russia in 1990. The outcome was Putin.

The road to democracy is long. The toppling of a despotic regime is a one-time act, but the formation of a democracy is a complex process stretching over many years. This must not be forgotten.