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Edmund Burke and the Arab Spring

Proponents of the elections in Egypt and the 'democracy' sweeping the Arab world would do well to learn from history
Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke

With the outbreak of the election result in Egypt, I was reminded of an interview last year by David Horovitz (now here at The Times of Israel) in The Jerusalem Post with Bernard Lewis on the subject of elections in the then-new Arab Spring:

We, in the Western world particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms, and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections…


If there’s a genuinely free election – assuming that such a thing could happen – the religious parties have an immediate advantage. First, they have a network of communication through the preacher and the mosque which no other political tendency can hope to equal. Second, they use familiar language. The language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses.


In genuinely fair and free elections, [the Muslim parties] are very likely to win and I think that would be a disaster. A much better course would be a gradual development of democracy, not through general elections, but rather through local self-governing institutions. For that, there is a real tradition in the region.”

Lewis was emphasizing, among other things, a crucial cultural difference in approach to governance between the particulars of Western-style democracy and the mores of social and political authority as it has existed, and exists, today in the Arab world.

Lewis’s belief that elections should not be held too soon in societies unused to self-governance was surely prudent. His fears about the superior political organization of the Muslim Brotherhood were also, as we now know, well founded. Lewis’s skepticism and caution about the too-sudden transition to democracy and Western-style elections in the Arab Spring is, in fact, reminiscent of Edmund Burke’s views on the French Revolution at a similar stage. In a letter to a Frenchman in October of 1789 (a mere three months after the storming of the Bastille), Burke, staring at the tumult southward across the channel like so many Israelis looking westward across the Sinai over the last year, expressed his solid conviction that liberty was indeed the birthright of all peoples:

You hope, sir, that I think the French deserving of liberty. I certainly do. I certainly think that all men who desire it, deserve it. It is not the reward of our merit, or the acquisition of our industry. It is our inheritance. It is the birthright of our species.”


You have kindly said, that you began to love freedom from your intercourse with me. Permit me then to continue our conversation, and to tell you what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled. This is the more necessary, because, of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will.


The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.

Liberty, Burke is saying, is thus a responsibility, and must never be confused with unrestrained license.

Then, presciently forecasting the catastrophe and chaos that would soon engulf all of France — the September Massacres, the Terror, the execution of the King and Queen were all still to come at this stage —  Burke warned that the unrestrained passions of the mob, given free rein, were a far worse tyrant than any king:

But if neither your great assemblies, nor your judicatures, nor your municipalities, act, and forbear to act, in the particulars, upon the principles, and in the spirit that I have stated, I must delay my congratulations on your acquisition of liberty. You may have made a revolution, but not a reformation. You may have subverted monarchy, but not recovered freedom.


You have theories enough concerning the rights of men; it may not be amiss to add a small degree of attention to their nature and disposition. It is with man in the concrete; it is with common human life, and human actions, you are to be concerned.


Never wholly separate in your mind the merits of any political question, from the men who are concerned in it. For designing men never separate their plans from their interests; and, if you assist them in their schemes, you will find the pretended good, in the end, thrown aside or perverted, and the interested object alone compassed, and that, perhaps, through your means. The power of bad men is no indifferent thing. (Emphasis added)

Indeed. As with Hamas in Gaza in 2006 and perhaps now in Egypt, the machinery of electoral democracy can be manipulated to un-democratic ends by those who are less than democracy-minded; assemblies, votes, and elections are all well and good, Burke is saying, but unless the habits and mindset of governance are tempered by moderation and informed by prescription — i.e., a respectful observance of laws and customs of tradition — then we are left with the trappings of democracy and reform without the substance, a sure recipe for the chaos that always leads to an even greater tyranny than protest and revolution had originally sought to remove in the first place, as happened with the French Jacobins in 1792, the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917, and the Iranian Shi’ite fundamentalists in 1979.

Said Burke in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790):

“If prescription be once shaken, no species of property is secure, when it once becomes an object large enough to tempt the cupidity of indigent power.”

And he harbored no illusions about where the Jacobins’ brand of “democracy” ultimately led. In his “Letters on Regicide Peace” (1796), he described the Jacobins in terms that could easily apply today to Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or any other totalitarian entity of the last century,

Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The state is all in all. Everything is referred to the production of force; afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it. It is military in its principle, in its maxims, in its spirit, and in all its movements. The state has dominion and conquest for its sole objects — dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.

Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke

The liberals of Burke’s day championed the French Jacobins’ assault against the French monarchy in terms similar to the way in which the average BDS activist of today might defend Hamas as “resistance” against “occupation” and “apartheid,” or left-liberals playing down the fanaticism of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Burke was never fooled by the Jacobins’ charade and imposture. He saw nothing but a gathering of garrulous soap-box orators and ambitious tricksters tinkering with (and wrecking) the sacred, centuries-old machinery of government toward their own selfish ends, and their crude, cynical slogans of “freedom,” “liberty,” and “the rights of man” he knew to be mere cant.  From the very beginning, he saw in the whole spectacle enveloping France not only a danger to France and Britian, but to Western civilization itself.

Edmund Burke was as liberal-minded a reformer as any in his day, a pioneer even: he championed free trade before Adam Smith, and, defying the powerful merchant interests in the Commons, openly castigated the inhumanity of the slave trade long before Wilberforce began his crusade. He sought reform of the penal codes, the removal of the political disabilities of Catholics, and the punishments inflicted on homosexuals (which included prison, the lash, and publicly being bound in the stock). He supported the Dissenters’ petition for full civil rights, championed freedom of the press though he was arguably one of its most prominent victims, and braved the wrath of King George III and his minions in Parliament by standing up for the rights of Catholics in Ireland, the colonists of America, and the peoples of India against the abuses of the British crown.

Burke’s stance on the French Revolution cost him many old friends. British liberals like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft all enthusiastically embraced the French Revolution as the long-awaited sequel to the American one; freedom that blessed America now liberated France from the tyranny and oppression of the monarchy; a new day of freedom, equality, and the rights of man now beckoned. Paine, in “The Rights of Man” (1791), and Wollstonecraft, in “A Vindication of the Rights of Man” (1790), along with other liberals in parliament and elsewhere, were shocked and dismayed by Burke’s opposition of the French Revolution. How, they argued, could Edmund Burke, noted supporter of countless reforms and the rights of American revolutionaries, now deny his support of the same for the French? He was, in their view, inconsistent, or, worse, a hypocrite who had abandoned the cause of liberal reform to become an apologist for privilege and reaction.

But the truth was that all of the causes that Burke championed in his lifetime, including his opposition to the French Revolution, sprang from a single source: his abhorrence of tyranny and the abuse of power. It shines like a beacon in everything he did and every word he uttered.

William Butler Yeats caught this consistency in his poem “The Seven Sages,” where he spoke of Burke’s “great melody,” i.e., his passionate eloquence in speaking out against the injustices harrying oppressed peoples everywhere:

American colonies, Ireland, France, and India,

Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.

Burke was indeed no hypocrite, and there is no inconsistency in his support for American self-rule and independence and his opposition to the French Revolution; he knew the difference between the two revolutions. Burke, who counted Benjamin Franklin among his very best friends, knew and understood that the American desire for independence grew out of the transplanted Englishman’s desire for autonomy and self-rule, and that it was the British Crown’s foolish and futile attempts to suppress and inhibit this pursuit that gave both colonists and the mother country the tragedy of the Revolutionary War. In his “Speech on Conciliation with America” (1775) — made a full month before the shots rang out at Lexington and Concord — Burke warned that attempts by the Crown to suppress the colonists’ independence were hopeless. The American colonists, he warned, were “descendants of Englishmen:”

They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles. They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.

Burke, like most British of his day, entertained a high opinion of the caliber of American leadership — of Washington in particular. Burke also had nothing but praise for the American Constitution, which he said was “well adapted both to American circumstances and to the American tradition yet with an admixture of British constitutional principles that preserved it from pure democracy.”

Burke, in short, knew that Danton and Robespierre were no Franklin and Washington.

Burke’s ability to discern the difference between Madisonian democracy in America with its checks and balances, and the crude Jacobinian imposture of it he saw in Revolutionary France, was a feat of insight that is more relevant to us now than ever. What Burke ultimately has to say to posterity is this: Liberty and freedom are the birthright of all peoples, but democracy must never succumb to mass demagoguery or mob rule, and that liberty unrestrained and uninformed by respect for the rule of law and custom is a vice to all. Supporters and proponents of the election results in Egypt, and of the “democracy” that is now sweeping the rest of the Arab world, ignore this timeless wisdom at their peril.

About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.