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Are All Revolutions Good Revolutions?

As other dominoes teeter in the wake of Egypt's recent revolution, U.S. officials should be prepared to respond to a rather dangerous assumption that seems to be taking hold in the media: "all revolutions are now good revolutions."

One bit of knowledge that has emerged from the Egypt storyline is a greater awareness in the West when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood as an active global force, one that is not limited in its influence to the boundaries of Arab nation states. While it's true that they're more active in places like Jordan, where the New York Times estimates they have the support of roughly 25 percent of the population (one reason why King Abdullah II met with them recently), and it's also true that the brotherhood in one nation is not necessarily as radical as it is elsewhere, the overall impact beyond the Middle East has to raise concerns.

The possibility that Brotherhood-backed political leaders will attempt to turn the Egyptian experience into a global rallying cry for revolution certainly bears watching. As we re-evaluate the Cairo Effect in light of Egypt's revolution, one question is whether the United States has devoted too much attention to our engagement with the Islamic world on the Middle East, creating a negative effect in other parts of that sphere. It's possible that President Obama's speech in Cairo had the effect of sending the message that the Arab world is the primary focus of our contacts with Muslims - a message that is unfortunate to say the least, considering that the effect here is hardly limited to the Arab world. Egypt creates an opportunity for opposition political leaders in other Muslim nations to grab hold of the revolutionary experience and deploy it as a talking point in their efforts; even if they inhabit a far more open, transparent, and democratic political system.

Speaking from New York last week, Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim tried to do exactly this on CNN, following on his argument in the Wall Street Journal. This line sticks out to me as particularly notable on these lines - and it's consistent with the CNN interview:

The bogeyman of Islamism, the oft-cited scapegoat of Middle Eastern dictators to justify their tyranny, must therefore be reconsidered or junked altogether. The U.S., too, should learn a lesson about the myth that secular tyrants and dictators are its best bet against Islamists. Revolutions, be they secular or religious, are born of a universal desire for autonomy.

The WSJ piece is actually quite good on a number of points, but this line sticks in one's craw. It is particularly concerning to hear such rhetoric go without response - particularly given the possibility that Anwar speaks as someone who received financial support from the Muslim Brotherhood - as it tends to suggest that all political change must come in the form of take-to-the-streets revolt, not as peaceful and gradual reforms.

While I am more optimistic about Egypt in the long run, jumping to the conclusion that "all revolutions are good revolutions" now is hardly responsible. As Niall Ferguson and others have argued, citing Obama's own words from Cairo in his June 2009 speech - "America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles - principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings" - such a simplified view comes across as very naive:

Those lines will come back to haunt Obama if, as cannot be ruled out, the ultimate beneficiary of his bungling in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains by far the best organized opposition force in the country—and wholly committed to the restoration of the caliphate and the strict application of Sharia. Would such an outcome advance "tolerance and the dignity of all human beings" in Egypt? Somehow, I don't think so.

It's completely irresponsible to suggest that all revolutions, whether secular or religious, are borne out of a desire for autonomy that the United States should favor. While I expect many political opposition leaders will attempt to adopt Egypt as a symbol of their own challenge to the existing hierarchies within their nations, it's unwise for them to do so - not simply because the comparison doesn't work, but because if they have to stare into the maw of revolution at some point, they too may well end up as part of the establishment which must be overthrown.