March 15, 2011


The Fourth Wave: Where the Middle East revolts fit in the history of democratization—and how we can support them. (Carl Gershman, March 14, 2011, New Republic)

It is early to assess the global impact on democracy of this new Arab awakening, but there are four reasons to think that what has happened in the Middle East could have much broader ramifications for democratic progress. The first is that the events in the Middle East offer powerful and, I would argue, conclusive evidence supporting the idea that democracy is a universal value. The Arab Middle East was the only major region of the world that the Third Wave had bypassed completely, leading some commentators to coin the phrase “Arab exceptionalism” to characterize this phenomenon. The Economist magazine, in an article that appeared, ironically, just two weeks before the beginning of the uprising in Tunisia, summarized the various arguments that had been offered to explain the democracy deficit in the Arab world—among them the undemocratic character of Islam and Arab culture, the colonial inheritance of artificial borders and states that weakened a focus on citizen rights, the manipulation by Arab rulers of the conflict with Israel and the fear of the Islamists, and the abundance of oil which both enriched the regimes and freed them from having to serve the needs of tax-paying citizens. All of these are strong arguments, but the fact that they have now been refuted by millions of Arab citizens ready to risk their lives for freedom affirms with remarkable force the message that all people have dignity and should be treated with respect. This message has certainly been heard in countries far beyond the Middle East.

A second reason the Middle East events have the potential to mushroom involves popular attitudes towards democracy. The protests succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt, and stimulated further protests in other countries, partly because democracy enjoys broad popular support in the Middle East. Such support was reflected in the Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights that was approved in October, two months before the start of the uprisings, and approved by over 2,200 Arab intellectuals. In addition, the World Values Survey and other opinion polls conducted over the past decade in Algeria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine and Kuwait show that between 80 and 90 percent of the people want their countries to be ruled by democratic systems. These numbers are similar to the level of support for democracy in other regions. Summarizing the data, Larry Diamond observed last summer that “Public opinion surveys in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the post-communist states, and the Arab states all show majorities of the public within each region prefer democracy as the best form of government. Strikingly, this is true even in the poorer countries of Africa and Asia, and in Arab countries with no direct experience of democracy.” Thus, the demand for democracy that we’ve seen in the Middle East could easily spread to countries in other regions that are still ruled by authoritarian governments.

This suggests a third reason democracy could spread, which is that autocratic regimes in the world today are all, to one degree or another, vulnerable and unstable. This is true, for example, of the three regimes I mentioned earlier that took repressive measures at the end of last year. Putin may be in control in Russia, but he has lost the support of the political elite which fears that his return to the presidency will usher in a period of Brezhnev-like stagnation and continued economic and societal decline. Lukashenko’s decision to crack down in Belarus was taken to head off a popular challenge to the election result, which most opinion analysis and observer reports showed did not give him a victory in the first round. And Chavez assumed decree powers to neutralize the National Assembly, where the opposition has a far greater presence after its victory in the popular vote in last September’s parliamentary election.

Other autocracies are also showing signs of trouble. Fidel Castro has conceded that “the Cuban model doesn’t work for us anymore;” and the China model, for all its economic success, appears less stable in light of what The Economist called Beijing’s “disastrous” response to Liu Xiaobo’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, which it said “betrays the government’s insecurity at home.” The Iranian regime succeeded in repressing the Green Revolution, just as the military in Burma crushed the Saffron Revolution two years earlier. But both uprisings had mass popular support and exposed the inherent illegitimacy of each regime. The inexorable erosion of the grotesque dictatorship in North Korea continues apace, with South Korea discreetly preparing for the eventual reunification even as international attention remains focused on the nuclear threat from the North. Tocqueville’s recollection of the 1848 revolutions applies to many contemporary autocracies: “Society was cut in two: those who had nothing were united in common envy, and those who had anything united in common terror.”

The principal new factor responsible for the vulnerability of autocratic regimes today is the rapid growth of new communications technologies and social networks, and this is the fourth reason to think that the contagiousness of the Middle East uprisings could spread. These technologies were a key factor in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Without the Internet, the corruption of Ben Ali and his cronies would not have inflamed public opinion the way it did, leading to the sudden eruption of outrage following the death of Mohamed Bouazizi. And before the Internet, the murder in Alexandria by two police officers of Khaled Sa’id, a young blogger who had posted a video of them sharing the spoils of a drug bust, would have received little attention. But in this new age a half-million Egyptians joined the “We Are All Khaled Sa’id” Facebook page, and it was this page that initiated the January 25 revolution.

Of course not every networked movement is successful. The fact that the Green Revolution in Iran used Twitter, Facebook pages and blogs to great effect as tools for mobilization did not prevent its being crushed by the police and Basij. And China employs more than 50,000 cyber police to enforce the government’s Great Firewall of Internet censorship to control and keep tabs on what is now, at some 400 million people, the world’s largest population of Internet users. We can expect these and other autocratic regimes to use all the means at their disposal to prevent the use of the Internet by political opponents, including hacking and social malware attacks on opposition websites and even shutting down the Internet entirely, as the Burmese and Egyptian governments did during their respective uprisings. Nonetheless, they cannot change the underlying reality, which is that there is a sharpening the contradiction today between closed and repressive states and increasingly networked, informed and awakened populations, creating a revolutionary crisis of the political order.

Posted by at March 15, 2011 6:09 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus