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History continues in Egypt and Libya

  • 13 March 2011

At the end of the Cold War, when perestroika undid the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama wrote his thesis on the 'End of History'.

For a very short time, until it was apparent that 'history' was alive in various forms of ideological struggle, the 'end of history' was an idea — or, more accurately, a catchphrase — that caught on. Now Fukuyama's paradigm has resurfaced, to capture the significance of the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and the simmering protest movements elsewhere in the Middle East.

Even the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, has referred to the 'end of history' catchphrase while considering these events (in order to dismiss it).

It is worth exploring what Fukuyama's view of history has to offer as we consider the unfolding events in the Middle East. History is the story we tell ourselves about why and how things have happened, how these events fit into a longer narrative. The emphases we bring to the story-telling matter.

What did Fukuyama consider to be 'history'? In his understanding, it was the clash of competing ideologies enacted through the rivalry of political movements and states. History's end was, according to Fukuyama, a state of affairs in which liberal democracy became the world's pre-eminent political ideology, unchallenged by other rival political doctrines.

Thus, Fukuyama extrapolated from G. W. F. Hegel's 19th century belief in an inexorable movement of history: history in Hegel's mind was a process with a beginning, middle and end and he believed it culminated in an 'absolute moment' that would usher in the final form of state and society.

Does the movement towards political change in the Middle East constitute an 'absolute moment' which forecasts the realisation of democratic governments across the Arab world? Is it at all accurate to think in these terms?

Fukuyama did not argue that the fall of the USSR would usher in democratic regimes across the globe. Rather, he argued that there was now no political idea besides 'liberal democracy' that possessed the same attraction and power.

It is true that such is the contemporary power of the democratic ideal that even authoritarian regimes resort to the language of democracy to cast a veil of legitimacy over themselves. Thus in Russia the former (and perhaps ongoing) Putin regime coined the phrase 'sovereign democracy' to describe Putin's preferred system of government.

And, in Iran and Malaysia, the ideas of the rule of law and elected government have been