The Arab Spring’s provisional score card is not encouraging. It has only gathered pace in five countries out of the Arab League’s 22 members. In Syria, the tyrant stands and so does his machine of repression. Elsewhere, the tyrant was toppled, but what comes next is another story.
A tyrant’s fall is no guarantee that democracy follows — Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad overthrew dictators; and the delirious crowds who literally ripped the late Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Said apart on the streets of Baghdad in 1958 did not get rid of a Hashemite king to install democracy. Neither was that Nasser’s goal when he ousted King Farouk. The fall of a tyrant does not translate into “Spring,” if by spring we wish to evoke a parallel with Prague in 1968 or Central and Eastern Europe in 1989.
Another word of caution — in the history of revolutions, those who initiate the convulsed journey of radical and sometimes violent change are not necessarily the ones who lead by the time the revolution is over. The Bastille begat terror — and then Napoleon; the Mensheviks were swept away by Lenin; Iran’s rainbow opposition took down the shah — then, Khomeini took them apart.
Even in the best-case scenario — something rare in the region’s history — it is not clear that citizens of Arab countries, once they are given the chance to choose their leaders, will embrace democracy and support democrats. There are alluring alternatives on offer.
In 1989, Eastern European nations sought to free themselves from the yoke of Soviet and Communist oppression and looked to democracy as the only viable political alternative to their predicament. The ideology behind the regimes they sought to topple was a spent force and had lost any of the appeal it may have had in the past. Transition to democracy was never in question, and the switch from the Warsaw Pact to NATO, from Communist dictatorships to liberal democracies, did not encounter robust domestic opposition, save maybe from the old Communists, whose views were largely discredited.
In 1989, democracy had no serious alternative in Eastern Europe. In 2011, democracy finds in Islamism — the ideology of the opposition in much of the Arab world — a fierce competitor.
2011 may thus turn out to be a big disappointment for democracy promoters in the Arab world and their Western supporters.— Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The promise of the so-called “Arab Spring,” which dislodged autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, has melted down in a violent summer of struggle, after Arab dictatorships cracked down on popular protests in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, among other places. The outcome of the popular yearning for freedom is likely to be different in each country, depending on the strength of pro-reform forces, the willingness of ruling regimes to accommodate popular demands for change, the capacity of regimes to resist change, and the balance of power between rival political factions that seek to fill the political vacuums created by sudden political upheavals.
The countries burdened with the worst dictatorships — Libya, Syria, and Yemen — have been plunged into violent civil wars that will make successful transitions to stable democracies very difficult. In Tunisia and Egypt, where autocrats were toppled but substantial portions of the regimes remain in power, the transition has been incomplete and increasingly threatened by growing political polarization. Tunisia probably has the best chance of becoming a stable democracy, given its relatively large middle class, well-educated population, and relatively secular political culture. In Egypt, the army, Muslim Brotherhood, and liberal reformers are locked in an uncomfortable triangular relationship as they push rival political agendas.