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Watch Out, Mr. President

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
February 22, 2011
The Daily Beast


Remember that great old democrat, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin? Once upon a time, many trumpeted him as the peoples' man du jour. He had delicious democratic slogans: “Peace, Bread, and Land” and “All Power to the Soviets” (meaning the peoples' councils). This pithy platform thrilled throngs longing to stop Russia's involvement in World War I and retire the czar's oppressive regime. Good people the world over applauded these populist sentiments, though not the communist progeny. Unfortunately, by democracy, Lenin meant dictatorship by him and the Communist Party.

Now, don't go crazy. I'm not obsessing about Islamic Lenins lying in wait to exploit the current turmoil. I'm simply noting that experts and the talkocracy seem overeager to leap “on the right side of history” and march arm-in-arm with the revolutionaries, whom they don't know from a hole in the wall. To be blunt, I don't know anyone who has the foggiest idea where these revolutions from Algeria to the borders of Saudi Arabia are going or whether future leaders there will be true democrats or new dictators. Sure, we all hope that present autocratic friends will help with a peaceful and orderly transition toward real democracy. Sure, we all hope that their successors will be both real democrats and sympathetic to American interests.

I’m hoping for, but I’m certainly not betting on, a bright and more democratic future. Too many things can come a cropper on the rocky road to democracy, especially in the troubled and religiously quixotic world of Arabs and Islam. Will the Egyptian military help to gradually establish democratic institutions and free and fair elections, or will they hold on to their vast political and economic power? I’m betting the military takes over Hosni Mubarak’s old political party and “wins” the election. What of the 70 percent Shiite majority in Bahrain? I’m betting they just want to throw out their longtime Sunni rulers, take over, and embrace Iran. As for Libya and Yemen, I’m not counting on their turning into Switzerlands. And so forth. If only the women of Egypt, so sensible and bright, could take over their country, I’d be sublimely happy.

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