Revolutions Then and Now

The Battlefield at Yorktown

On democracy

“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.  The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories—  Thomas Jefferson. Notes on the State of Virginia, 1782

My family and I spent the past week in the American state of Virginia, touring Williamsburg and Yorktown, crucial epicenters of America’s revolutionary past.  A history, as every American schoolchild learns, that involved colonialists who, over a period of more than 150 years, grew increasingly disenfranchised by their royal sponsors.  Sponsors who, rather than embrace the emerging entrepreneurial and independent spirit of their profitable colonies, exerted increasing control and then violence in an attempt to force fealty to the crown.

As a result, the British, as we learned in school, became increasingly oppressive. So our founding fathers (in the 1960’s, when I was in school, our founding mothers had yet to find their way into the pages of history) stood up to the crown and started a revolution, demanding the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for every American.

The rest, as they say, is history.

America won its independence from the superiorly trained and armed Brits, who never seemed to take the threat posed by the upstart Americans seriously, until after it was too late.

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia (restored and period re-enactment)

So, for my family holiday, as we spent countless hours walking the battlefields, visiting museums and reading heroic and harrowing accounts of our own past, I found myself contrasting America’s own revolutionary heritage to those sweeping the globe as I type.

On this last day of 2011, I survey in awe, amazement and wonder at the transformations taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya.

Yorktown historical house with canon ball lodged in the wall. British General Cornwallis lived in the house at the time.

The parallels to the period surrounding our own revolution are striking.  The American revolution was followed by one in France. Today, the Arab Spring is following a similar path. People in North Africa and the Middle East are rising up for change, in many cases risking everything to demand the end of tyranny, corruption and the autocratic rule of their leaders who have often maintained power by sowing violence, favoritism, division and perpetuating one never ending crisis after another.

With the exception of Tunisia, which has maintained its peaceful transition, and Libya which has remained fairly stable, Egypt, Yemen and Syria are each in quite different stages of change. Change though, in each, is inevitable. It is apparent that the tipping point has already been reached in each and the genie unleashed will never go back into the bottle.  The only question that remains is the level of violence and human tragedy that will result.

I recall speaking with a young Yemeni activist last month when I was in Sana’a who said that since the revolution started in Yemen last February, she has marked the time by memories of being attacked by security forces and burying her friends.  As a result, she has lost any sense of fear.  With so much that has happened, she feels she has no other option but to continue on and push for the change that motivated her and thousands of others to take to the street peacefully and demand a government that is accountable, just and responsive to its people.

An obvious New Year’s wish is that the powers that be in Egypt, Yemen and Syria will see the writing on the wall and concede to the demands of their people and allow for a peaceful transition. And that those who are pushing for change will remain peaceful, unified and avoid fights among themselves that can be exploited to sow division. Further, that for those that step up and govern, that they govern with fairness and inclusivity and not fall into the footsteps of their predecessors.  We can also hope that Tunisia will continue to be a beacon of peaceful change and that Libya will stand firm in its peaceful, inclusive transition.

Change Square, Sana'a, Yemen

I know it is possible—not easy—but possible to hold it together. A few weeks ago, I met with a group of Tunisians at the National Defense University who were visiting the US to learn about governance and accountability.  It was an amazing group from their Ministries of Justice, Interior, Defense, Foreign Affairs, Health, Industry & Technology and Regional Development.  There were members from civil society, human rights league, and political parties, the central bank and the audit court.  The level of awareness, interest and commitment to the task at hand was inspiring.  In fact, during the course of their questions and the ensuing discussions, I have no doubt that I learned far more from their grasp and enthusiasm for the topics I addressed than my presentation on corruption imparted upon them.

Royal Governor's Palace, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

I reflect back on our own history and the concern that many had during the American Revolution that change would open Pandora’s box and unleash chaos and division along the colonies’ ideological, religious and political fault lines.  Even key thinkers in Great Britain believed it impossible for the colonies to unite and find common ground.  But young, idealistic America proved them wrong.  Vigorous debates took place around significant issues including the role, type and size of government; slavery, and individual rights. Disagreements on these key issues threatened to undermine the very foundation of the proposed union.  In order to maintain unity among the vastly different colonies, painful compromises were made — including the now unfathomable and much criticized agreement to accept slavery that was made as a concession to the southern colonies in order ensure their support.  Despite their seemingly insurmountable differences, the colonies eventually managed to reach a fragile consensus, and united in their demand for independence from Great Britain.

Imperfect though it was, and clearly not the peaceful approach to conflict resolution that we seek today, ultimately the American Revolution became known for its stand against tyranny and oppression.  It also has come to be associated with a call for justice for all.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, America was to provide “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.”

Thomas Jefferson understood the importance of justice when he spoke these words,  “All the tranquility, the happiness & security of mankind rest on justice, on the obligation to respect the rights of others.”

So with just a few minutes left before the new year, it is with this that I end this last blog for 2011.  Along with this simple wish that whatever your country and whatever your beliefs and political affiliation, I hope for you a happy and prosperous new year based on fairness, equality and justice.