Juan Cole: The Arabs’ Fourth of July

Roundup: Historians' Take

Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, March, 2009) and he also recently authored Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

The United States today is celebrating the declaration of independence issued by a murky group of dissidents in 1776, who, had they been rounded up by the duly constituted authorities, would have been summarily and ignominiously hanged. Their brief against their government — a government that claimed an ancient heritage and right to govern them — was that it acted high-handedly and tyrannically, with no regard to public welfare. They charged their king with warring on their economic welfare and of depriving residents of the Thirteen Colonies of basic rights expected by all subjects of the crown, including the right to be represented on bodies that set taxes.

The long series of complaints lodged against the British monarchy by the American revolutionaries bears a striking resemblance to the charges laid against Arab rulers by their people since last December. Interfering with their economic well-being, ruling arbitrarily, undermining any independence of the judiciary, rendering “the military independent of and superior to civil power,” and preventing them from being properly represented in the legislatures have all been complaints launched via Twitter and Facebook and satellite television interviews, rather, as in the 18th century, via printed broadsides, handwritten letters, and word of mouth.

It is little wonder, then, that Americans have been overwhelmingly positive about these developments in the Arab world, with 76% of them sure that the changes will be positive in the long run, and, bless their hearts, 56% in favor of democratization even if it ended up hurting us interests. (Americans are not in the main Realists, it seems). Despite the best efforts of Fox Cable News and the Israel lobbies, only 15% think the revolts are mainly about Muslim fundamentalists trying to grab power. (What is true is that in the second phase of the revolutions, when they go to parliamentary elections, fundamentalist parties will contest vigorously for seats and some may do relatively well).

So here are some recent developments in the Arab revolutions of 2011, to consider on this day, which in 1776 in many ways kicked off a new way of organizing peoples and governments. Ironically, the abuses of executive power against which the Founding generation of Americans mobilized, and against which Arab youth have risen up, are now all too frequently exhibited by the Washington elite of both parties. This comment is not made in the way of encouraging cynicism, but simply to signal to all concerned that achieving democracy is not a single time-bound set of activities; it has to be a permanent way of life among free peoples, to which substantial numbers of citizens have to give of their time, effort and wealth. Otherwise, the executive in a country over time has enormous resources with which to infringe against basic rights of citizens, as do major corporations who have an unfair advantage in dominating the political process. Checks and balances within the government, such as the separation of powers, only go so far. Ultimately, it is people power that keeps tyranny at bay, which is why security forces and officials are so afraid of it....

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