Foreign Policy Blogs

Arab Revolt Is Not 1776

It might help the U.S. media better understand the various rebellions breaking out in the Middle East if they could clear their minds of thoughts of 1776 and the strange idea that despots like Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi are somehow equivalent to King George III. Although a number of commentators are comparing the Arab revolts of 2011 to America’s revolutionary war, the historical differences between two events are far greater than any conceivable parallel.

The false comparison seems to reflect the instinctive tendency of some Americans to project their own historical experiences onto other countries, neglecting hugely divergent circumstances, while sometimes contradicting themselves by simultaneously asserting American “exceptionalism.”

A good example is a March 1 column in The Wall Street Journal, Is There an Arab George Washington?, in which the usually incisive Bret Stephens compares America’s War of Independence to the French Revolution and the Egyptian coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952. He concludes that, “America’s revolutionary history was exceptional because we had a Washington while the French had a Robespierre and the Egyptians had a Nasser.”

Stephens assumes that in most other respects the uprisings were similar, and that it was Washington’s leadership that made the difference in ensuring a happy outcome in the United States. If today’s demonstrators are demanding the overthrow of a dictator in the name of democracy, they must be following in the footsteps of the angry colonists of the 1770s, according to this facile interpretation, and everything will turn out fine if only a new George Washington arises in Arabia.

Most journalists indulging in this fantasy, however, misinterpret both America’s revolution and today’s Arab revolt.

The fallacy is exposed by Nader Hashemi, a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, in a WSJ column March 11 entitled The New Mideast Will Still Mix Mosque and State. He writes “Westerners should avoid the so-called problem of transference: the natural tendency to assume that our historical experience is universal.”

It is wrong to suppose that “the protesters seek to build replicas of the societies that exist in the West,” Hashemi says. “That assumption is erroneous because the Arab world is only beginning to debate basic questions of civic and political life—especially what role religion should play in government.”

In The Washington Post February 10, David Ignatius doesn’t even get his own country’s history right when he writes, “King George III (meaning Mubarak) may be holding on. But he won’t last.” (King George did last – with a reign of nearly 60 years in total.) Daniel Henninger, in March 10 column in The Wall Street Journal, draws a parallel between today’s protesters in Cairo and “the Massachusetts rabble” of 1770.

Mitchell B. Reiss, the president of Washington College, expounds the same theme at greater length on the Fox News website February 21, in a piece entitled Searching for George Washington in Tahrir Square.

“For Washington,” he writes, “the unfolding crisis presented an awful choice: the terrifying disorder of revolution or the stability of despotism… Today, Americans viewing the scenes of revolution across the Middle East may share some of Washington’s ambivalence.”

It may give some Americans a romantic satisfaction to see the protesters of Tahrir Square as a reincarnation of the “embattled farmers” who fired the shot heard round the world in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1775, but it is an illusion that can only lead to false forecasts about the likely emergence of Western-style democracy in the Middle East.

Here are just a few of the fundamental differences that distinguish America’s revolution from those of today:

  1. The American colonists were not seeking to, and did not, overthrow their government (the King and Parliament in London) but to escape from it. This was a secession rather than a revolution. King George III stayed on the throne for another four decades after America’s victory in the War of Independence – a period in which British imperial power vastly expanded, not least through the defeat of Napoleonic France.
  2. The colonists already had a well-developed political and legal system, including a free press and elected assemblies, based on the best contemporary democratic practices. The issue was whether decisions on questions concerning the colonies, especially on taxes, should be made in London or America.
  3. Arabs today are opposing their current forms of government, not trying to create new independent nations.
  4. Far from suffering from dictatorship, Americans in the mid-18th century were the world’s freest people. They rebelled – mostly reluctantly – when they believed that London was making intolerable encroachments on their traditional “English rights.” They were not claiming new rights but defending old ones.
  5. The colonists owed their success to decisive military help from a foreign power (royalist France) – whereas no foreign power, least of all the United States, currently intends to provide similar support to the rebels in the Middle East. Libya is a possible exception, although the aim of NATO’s military intervention is not officially meant to be “regime change.”

Americans are right to regard their revolution as “exceptional.” President Ronald Reagan called it the only conservative revolution in world history. But that means it shouldn’t be used to draw false conclusions about today’s uprisings in the Arab world.