From the moment the Tahrir Square demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak began, optimism has dominated American reporting and commentary on what is being called the Egyptian revolution.
I fervently hope I am wrong, but I find it hard to share this dominant view, even as I identify with all those Egyptians and other Arabs who yearn for freedom.
I offer eight good reasons for my pessimism:
1. Countries almost never go straight from dictatorship to liberty.
For the past 250 years, the general rule of revolutions has been this: The more tyrannical the regime that is overthrown, the more tyrannical the regime that replaces it. Though post-Soviet Eastern European countries might seem to invalidate this rule, they do not. The reason Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Bulgaria became more or less free countries almost immediately after overthrowing communist dictatorships is that all those dictatorships were imposed from abroad (the Soviet Union). When a country overthrows a homemade dictator, it rarely replaces him with a free society. The French Revolution replaced the French monarchy with revolutionary terror. The Russian Revolution replaced the autocratic Russian czar with totalitarian commissars.
2. When pro-American dictators are overthrown, far more repressive anti-American tyrants usually replace them.
In 1959, the pro-American Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown and replaced by an anti-American communist totalitarian state under Fidel Castro. Most Cubans had far more freedom under Batista than under Castro. In 1979, the pro-American Shah of Iran dictatorship was overthrown and replaced by a far less free, far more repressive, virulently anti-American Islamic tyranny.
3. Islamists have a near-monopoly on passion in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
In politics, passion matters. That is why small impassioned groups can dominate a more passive majority of a country. And in Egypt, no group or cause has nearly the passion that the Islamists have.
4. Neither liberty nor tolerance has roots in the Arab world.
It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to plant the trees of liberty and tolerance in soil that has never grown them. And if these trees are planted, they are likely to take many years to grow.
5. People have been trained to depend on the state.