This famous phrase calls into question to objectiveness of history; can we really believe the accounts of those who exterminated their foes? Prior to World War II, the world was a much different place: there was very little economic interdependence, war was a profitable endeavor, and “soft power” (diplomacy, “spotlighting” abuses of power) played a negligible role in international affairs. From the beginnings of modern history through WWII, no one can really question that history was written by those who emerged from conflicts victorious (although, as the quote above argues, this does not necessarily mean it is false).
The tide began to shift towards more objective historic accounting in the decades following WWII. The proliferation of independent media outlets, combined with advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) (the internet, social media, etc.), have made it much more difficult for any one party to dictate history on their own terms, regardless of their ability to exercise “hard power” (I wrote a research paper on this shift for anybody interested in a more in-depth read).
As people around the world have become more educated / empowered (via civil / human rights), we have naturally learned to question conventional wisdom. Have we gotten to the point where this historic adage is no longer applicable? A report by an Egyptian government panel responsible for determining what happened during the August 2013 Cairo massacre seemingly refutes this claim:
A government-appointed panel said on Wednesday that the deaths of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at a protest camp in Cairo last August was mostly the fault of demonstrators who had provoked the security forces into opening fire.
The findings mainly echoed the military-backed government’s version of events. But in an unusual move, the panel also placed some responsibility for the bloodshed on the security forces and said they had used disproptionate force.
Panel member Nasser Amin accused the Mursi supporters of detaining and torturing civilians at the protest camps…contradicting past official accounts, Amin said security forces did not maintain proportional use of force when confronted with heavy gunfire from protesters.
He said some protesters also carried arms and shot at security forces, causing them to fire back.
But most of the protesters were peaceful and some had been used as human shields by the gunmen, he said.
The Interior Ministry has said that authorities did not use excessive force to scatter the camps and that Mursi’s supporters fired first.
It is particularly telling that a commission tasked with assessing blame for 1,200+ murders took up the issue of “detaining and torturing”. The commission found that deaths were not the fault of the Egyptian military, but rather Mursi supporters who used protesters as “human shields”, apparently quite effectively.
Admission of disproportionate use of force by Egyptian forces is a sign that the Egyptian government cannot simply whitewash over this past August’s bloodshed. Instead, it has to rely on distraction (don’t worry about the murders which undeniably took place, worry about alleged torture), and absurd scapegoating (it was not the fault of those who fired on protesters, but of terrorists using people as human shields).
The wounds of the Morsi ouster and crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood are still very fresh. Morsi currently stands accused of capital crimes, and the MB was just designated a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia, marking a larger regional crackdown against the group. Eventually, the truth will be recognized. Unfortunately for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no specific date when this will happen. It is, however, important to remember that history is not written in a matter of months.
Eventually, liberal politicians will wrestle power from the Egyptian military. In order to build up the broad based support needed to do so, liberal politicians will have to embrace some form of a “truth and reconciliation commission“, uniting all factions of Egyptian civil society under the banners of pluralistic democracy, economic populism, and human rights. To what extent the Egyptian military will be held legally accountable under such a commission is uncertain; military leaders will likely use immunity as condition for agreeing to hand over power in the first place. However, just having official recognition of grievances fosters unity, trust, and reconciliation–all important aspects of peaceful and prosperous societies.
We have come to a point in history where eventually the truth prevails, which is in itself a huge victory for social justice / deterrent against nefarious actors. It can certainly be argued that currently “crime still pays”, as accountability for social injustices is often incomplete, disproportionately lenient, and not timely in nature. However, as trends in governance and technology continue to empower people, we will one day reach an age of true social accountability.