Today we may be seeing revolt wash across the Arab world. In the mid-to late Eighteenth century, a wave of revolution began in the British North American colonies and over several swept through France, Ireland, Haiti, Poland and Latin America, the so-called Atlantic Revolutions. What happened then provides us with a lesson on how these waves behave and we it is foolish to attempt to control them or predict the outcome.
The Atlantic Revolutions all had intellectual roots in the Enlightenment, but the aspirations, goals and circumstances of the ordinary people who revolted varied considerably. The Thirteen Colonies were a unique collection of settlements, each founded with different motivations and possessing varying degrees of local democracy. The British settlers overall shared a level of prosperity and individual opportunities not available in the mother country and were imbued with a belief that they had certain inviolable rights as Englishmen. In comparison, the average French person lived in considerable poverty and under the threat of famine. The government was autocratic and medieval and levied the most oppressive taxes on those least able to afford them. In turn, conditions in Ireland, Poland and Latin America all had their own unique characteristics. In all cases the reasons for revolt existed, but it required one successful example to encourage the others to follow suit.
While the Enlightenment provided a common basis for the Atlantic revolts, each ran a different, unpredictable course and had different outcomes. The American Revolution established the United States, which exists as a stable democracy to this day, while France tore itself apart as their revolution turned increasingly radical. In contrast to the US, France has had two Empires, a restored Kingdom and five republics since 1789. Ireland and Poland's revolt utterly failed, and the Latin American revolts did not establish long-lasting, united and stable democracies.
To me, these examples show two things about a revolutionary wave. First, while ideals may be shared, the outcomes are uncertain and cannot be predicted. The US could have easily been subject to disunion and autocracy, and France may have set a up a stable republic if not for foreign intervention trying to turn back the revolution. It is foolhardy to say with certainty where one revolution will lead based on another.
We now see a revolutionary wave beginning in the Arab world. Tunisia provided the successful example. Jordan, Yemen and Egypt have degrees of unrest. The latter is the most developed (with a huge march demanding Mubarak's ouster going on at this moment) and is the one that has the most importance to the world as a whole. Looking at this situation, those who prefer order over democracy have raised the spector of a radical and terrorist friendly regime taking power. Some have stated a preference for a friendly dictator over the uncertainty of change, keeping Mubarak while managing reform and good ol' Rick Santorum claimed that the downfall of Mubarak is equivalent to the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Iranian Islamic state. This is ridiculous and arrogant. No foreigner has the right to tell Egyptians what type of government they should have and there is no way of knowing how the revolution will pan out. The idea that an Islamic state is guaranteed to arise is unfounded. as is the notion that a post-Mubarak government would be friendly to Iran. The Iranian regime is not only hostile to the west and Israel, but also Arabs and Sunni Muslims - Egypt is Arabic with a majority population of Sunni Muslims.
No one knows what will happen and interference from the outside would probably provide popular support for any radical elements. All we can do is hope for the best and make sure to support a new democracy if it emerges as much as we supported Mubarak.
Update: More stupidity from Bolton. These neo-con yahoos would love the US to turn into late 19th century Britain.