Political theorist Benjamin Barber

CivWorld at Demos president-director discusses what it will take to bring true democracy to Egypt.

Benjamin Barber is a noted political theorist who consults regularly with institutions and leaders in the U.S. and Europe. He's a senior fellow at Demos and president-director of CivWorld at Demos, the international NGO that sponsors Interdependence Day and the Paradigm Project. His best-selling books include Jihad vs. McWorld and Consumed. Barber also co-wrote the prize-winning CBS/PBS series, The Struggle for Democracy. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard and was a founding editor of the distinguished international journal, Political Theory.



Tavis: Dr. Benjamin Barber is a senior fellow at Demos and a best-selling author and the founder of the annual Interdependence Day, which will be held this September in New York on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He joins us tonight from New York. Ben Barber, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Dr. Benjamin Barber: Good evening, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start with your formulation, because I think it’s right – the only thing predictable about revolutions is that they are, in fact, unpredictable. So how unpredictable is this revolution in Egypt?
Barber: Well, Tolstoy said, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and every revolution is revolutionary in its own way. In Egypt, we have a peculiar group of circumstances. One, it starts as a kind of virtual revolution, the first netizen revolution, people coming off of the net, organized by the net. It’s kind of interesting. I’m on virtually this evening because it was a virtual revolution, really made first by the Internet.
I think it’s the first time the Internet, the Web, has played that role, and that means second that an awful lot of young people, relatively I wouldn’t say secular, but relatively educated, technically adept, were in the streets, a very different group than the stereotype about the Arab street that we have, which is a foolish stereotype anyway, a very different kind of street.
A street full of young people who care and understand technology and who are concerned about their rights and liberties, about their jobs, and who went into the street – and this was perhaps the most striking thing about it. On their lips was the word “peaceful, peaceful,” and they made, really for the first time, a revolution in the Middle East that had no violence.
We think about, again, the stereotype is that in the Middle East young people are violent. We think about suicide bombers, we think about radical Islam. But here we had first a people, and then reciprocating, an army that refused to engage in violence – an extraordinary first step.
Tavis: It is an extraordinary first step, and yet you well know – you’re the theorist here – that revolution is one thing; democracy is another, and democracy – if revolution is hard, democracy is really hard.
Barber: Well, that’s right, and of course – well, it takes the gifted and courageous protestors to make an uprising and a revolution; it takes citizens to make a democracy. And from being a protestor to being a responsible, competent, engaged citizen, that’s a long journey, and the Egyptians are about to engage in that journey, and it’s going to be a difficult journey, because already they think they have won something by removing a figurehead, Mubarak, but the supreme military council that replaces him is a group of people hardly younger than he is with people like Field Marshal Tantawi and General Anan, all of whom are part of his inner circle and who are continuing to oversee the transition.
So this transition, which is going to be a series of conversations between the military and the intelligence forces on the one hand and the street forces of the revolution on the other, is going to determine whether or not they can shape the next six months into political parties, a civic infrastructure that allows them to have meaningful elections.
We’ve seen again and again elections in the Middle East that have no meaning because they’re rigged and because the people who participate in them are not really citizens. So the next six to nine months will be absolutely telling. And as you say, that’s actually the hard part. Hard as this first part was, the next part is much harder because it will take time, patience and there will not be cameras on the protagonists at every moment.
Tavis: Given the bios, given the back story of all of Egypt’s previous leaders, tell me why it is you believe that we can or should trust the military.
Barber: Well, I don’t think anybody can trust the military, but we can trust the military to do what’s in its own interest, and it’s in its interest to see to a peaceful transition because the Egyptian people in the streets have proven that they are stubborn, they are persistent and they are not going to yield if simply we have a figurehead change and not genuine regime change.
So they know they’ve got to play ball, and it will be up to the young people of Egypt, up to the Youth Alliance, up to the Muslim Brotherhood that has a 30-year tradition of nonviolence despite their reputation, to keep the pressure on the military, to constantly let them know that if they slow down, there’ll be people in the streets against.
So it’s going to be a delicate dance between a military trying to hold on to some vestiges of power while yielding gradually, without giving up stability – the people who made the revolution, who are going to be working hard to shift power but to do so in a way that actually allows them to be organized.
Interestingly, one of the organizers of the Youth Alliance said yesterday that he was fearful that the military would rush elections, and if that happened, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the best-organized entity outside of the military and the bureaucracy in Egypt, would probably win by 50 or 60 percent, giving the military an excuse then to come back in.
So they’re actually, the Youth Alliance and the liberal party and some of the other parties are asking for more time so they can organize a fair election. They recognize the Muslim Brotherhood, but they know it’s going to take time. So part of this is can they buy enough time to develop a civic infrastructure and political parties capable of competing in fair elections.
Tavis: Much, as you know, Ben, has been made of the ongoing, for that matter, protests that are happening all around that region of the world now. You tell me, but as I see it it’s not as easy, as simple as it appears to the naked eye. That is to say that just because others in other countries are protesting, these countries aren’t going to start falling like dominoes, number one, and number two, they’re not all going to embrace democracy in the way that we envision it.
So tell me whether or not, to borrow somebody else’s phrase, there is an irrational exuberance right now about what we see happening in that region of the world.
Barber: Well, there is a naive and irrational exuberance. I do want to say that without that there would never be revolution, there would never be change. If we were all cynics of my age and political scientists, nothing would ever change. (Laughter) So we need some of that exuberance, but we also obviously need prudence, we need hard work, and that is going to take a long time.
As we speak, there are demonstrations in Benghazi in Libya, in Bahrain, in Syria and in Iran, where the government is trying to suppress the revolution in the streets that are celebrating the very revolution in Egypt that the regime in Iran itself wanted to celebrate.
Lots of contradictions. It’s going to look different anywhere. In Bahrain, for example, King Hamad is a Sunni, 70 percent of his people are Shiites and they’re partly unhappy by Sunni rule. It’s a kind of miniature Iraq 15 years ago in that sense.
In Syria and in Libya you have much less discontent in the streets because there’s both been a lot of repression, but also in Libya, for example, they have gas and oil and people are relatively content. Over in Benghazi, the other side from Tripoli, people don’t like Gaddafi, but that’s because they’re members of tribes that have never liked the Gaddafi tribe that’s been running Tripoli.
So in each case we’ve got to, in a sense, look carefully at the local circumstances and see what’s going to happen. It’s going to look very different place to place, and in many places the government will not be reluctant to use violence in the way that the Army, the conscript Army in Egypt, made up of the same people who were in the streets – their families were represented in the Army – were unwilling to use violence.
So it is going to be long and slow. To your other question, Tavis, of course it’s also true that watch out what you wish for, because we wish for democracy in the West, but in Gaza we got democracy – Hamas was elected by a large majority. In Algeria when they got democracy back 20, 25 years ago, it led, in fact, to an Islamic fundamentalist regime, which ultimately allowed the Algerian military to come back in and reassert itself.
There is a good model out there, though, Tavis, and I just want to mention it because you and I have spent time there in Istanbul. In Turkey in 1922 there was a military revolution, a nationalist revolution followed by many, many years of military rule, political rule with a military in the background. Just five or six years ago the AKP, a moderate Islamic party, came to power, and they made a deal with the military.
They said, “You leave us alone, don’t come in and have another coup, and we’ll be careful not to move too fast, we’ll be careful to respect secular institutions in other parties.”
So far, though it’s a delicate dance, that has worked well, and that might be a model for the Egyptian military, which is going to hang around. It’s going to be around long after the elections are there, but which may be willing to step back and be a kind of guarantor and conservator of fair politics, but not itself engaged in those politics.
That’s not a solution we like in the West, where we have civilian hegemony over the military, but it may be a solution that has worked in Turkey until now and could make a difference in Egypt.
Tavis: I’ve got two minutes to go. I’m going to see if I can get you to give me two one-minute answers to two very important questions. Number one, what say you about the perceived, if not in fact real hypocrisy of our government? You mentioned Libya, you mentioned Egypt; a number of countries. We don’t have time to break them down, but a number of countries where we have had cozy relationships with the leaders of these countries when it was convenient for us, and now that it’s a little – you see where I’m going with this.
Barber: I do.
Tavis: I don’t need to go any further. Your thoughts.
Barber: The great paradox of American foreign policy is that one of the first great democracies that was born in revolution and believes in liberty has consistently followed a foreign policy based not on liberty and democracy but on certain selfish interests, on securing energy and having dictators to support, who keep stability that allows American corporations and American business to do business around the world.
We need to understand that we are seen as a beacon of revolution and liberty, but to do that means to unlink ourselves from the regimes of corruption and tyranny and begin to support popular revolutions of a kind that are in fact are imitating our own revolution.
Tavis: To your last point now, my final question. I was asked this morning by an interviewer myself what I thought there was for us, that is to say the American public, to learn? What can we learn from what’s happening in Egypt and that part of the world?
It kind of struck me as a funny question because in many ways, given that I come out of the Black tradition in this country, we taught the world how to protest, we taught the world how to do it nonviolently. There was a man named King, as we celebrate Black History Month, who was regarded around the world for leading that kind of movement here.
So how would you respond to the question of what there is for us at this moment to learn from them?
Barber: Well, the great irony of the Egyptian revolution is that in a part of the Middle East that we associate with violence, fundamentalism and military dictatorship, you have had regime change, you have had an uprising in revolution rooted in nonviolence.
Alongside of Mohammed we’ve seen the spirit of Mandela, we’ve seen the spirit of Martin Luther King, we’ve seen the spirit of the Mahatma. The lesson maybe we can learn today, when we have sent troops into Iraq and into Afghanistan and we’re making war on behalf of democracy, we did it in Vietnam in the ’60s, we’re doing it today in the regions around Pakistan and Afghanistan, is that in fact you don’t make democracy by invasion.
You don’t make democracy through war. The people on the ground are reminding us that our own best tradition, with Martin King, India’s best tradition with Mahatma Gandhi, is a better way to achieve genuine change and democratic transformation than by sending troops and soldiers.
If the Egyptians can make regime change peacefully, then we shouldn’t be making war in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world on behalf of democracy.
Tavis: Ben Barber, as always, I want to thank you for coming on and sharing your insights. Good to have you back on this program.
Barber: Thanks so much, Tavis.
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Last modified: August 30, 2011 at 4:11 pm