David Ignatius
Opinion writer May 27, 2011

“Revenge, at first though sweet, Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.” The wisdom of that couplet from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” extends in many directions. But let’s consider the context of the Arab Spring and its transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Revolutions can go off the rails for many reasons. But history shows that one of the most dangerous (if also understandable) mistakes is the desire to settle scores with the deposed regime. That toxic whiff of revenge has been in the air lately in Egypt, and it poses a danger for the Tahrir Revolution and the other movements that emulate it.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

The New York Times reported last week that Egypt’s transitional military council intends to try deposed President Hosni Mubarak for conspiring to kill unarmed protesters. Conviction could mean the death penalty. The new regime also plans to prosecute Mubarak and his two sons, along with a wave of business cronies, on charges of corruption.

This prosecutorial zeal has frightened conservative Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which has warned that it won’t provide economic assistance to Egypt if Mubarak is humiliated. But the greater danger is that Egyptian and international investors will steer clear of the country if they think doing business there might expose them to legal risks.

Sen. John Kerry had it right when he told a gathering of the trustees of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last week that a vengeful legal assault on Mubarak would be an “enormous mistake.” The biggest cost, Kerry said, is that it would undermine the economic strategy of innovation, investment and entrepreneurship that was the overlooked centerpiece of President Obama’s big speech on the Middle East.

What’s needed in Egypt and the other Arab countries that have suffered from dictatorship is a sense that the rule of law will prevail, with safeguards against vindictive prosecution. This protective legal framework is as important as democracy itself, which as Alexander Hamilton and other American founders warned more than 200 years ago can be bent to become the tyrannical will of the mob.

On my visits to Egypt since the Tahrir Revolution, I have been struck by the growing polarization between Christians and Muslims and the vindictiveness against Mubarak’s family and friends. It’s nice to see Egyptians lining up at newspaper kiosks (to buy real newspapers, as opposed to canned official lies), but my Cairo friends say that too many headlines carry the implicit message, “Off with their heads!”

There’s a difference between accountability for the crimes of the past, which is healthy, and a spirit of vengeance, which is not. South Africa sought that balance with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which denounced apartheid but also tried to reassure whites that they had a future in a multiracial democracy. Rwanda has struggled to craft a similar process that reconciles Hutus who perpetrated the 1994 genocide with the Tutsi victims (who now run the country).

Neither the South African nor the Rwandan efforts have been entirely successful. But both established a legal process of justice that had reconciliation as its explicit goal, which checked the impulse for vengeance.

Failure to develop such a framework can have disastrous consequences. The French Revolution of 1789 was inflamed by the Committee of Public Safety and its practice of national purification by guillotine; the Iranian revolution of 1979 was manipulated by zealots who, from the first months, began purging those they judged insufficiently devoted to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Finding a post-revolutionary path to reconciliation is especially important in the Middle East, whose nations are mosaics of different religions, tribes and clans. Unless an inclusive spirit of “truth and reconciliation” can be nurtured, these countries will fracture into pre-modern loyalties, as happened in post-Hussein Iraq.

This transition process is especially volatile in Syria, where a blood feud between the ruling Alawite minority and the Sunni majority has been building since the 1970s. Exacerbating this religious fracture is the regional tension between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

For an example of how the blood feuds of the past can poison the present, one need look no further than the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Both sides are so embedded in their narratives that they can’t write the common document of a peace treaty. They could use a little truth and reconciliation, too.

As the Arab Spring rolls forward, the new revolutionaries must build pathways to a stable and tolerant future, even as they take proper account of the past. Otherwise, as the movie title had it, “there will be blood.”

davidignatius@washpost.com