There have been worse times, calmer times, bloodier times and simpler times—but there has never been so hopeful a time for those who want to see liberal democracy bloom in the Middle East. The suddenly tantalizing possibility of revitalizing that troubled region should warm the stoniest heart.
As many have noted, until this month Tunisia was a typical sclerotic, corrupt Arab dictatorship. The government’s heavy hand squeezed the neck of the press, dissidents were subject to arrest and torture, and the steady weight of corruption crushed the spirit of many.
Then, in a spontaneous uprising that will be studied and argued over for years to come, a despairing merchant’s self-immolation sparked the insurrection that led to the flight of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of rule. (Commentator Joe Ribakoff has an interesting theory linking global warming, Russian crop failures, and the Tunisian upheaval. Worth checking out.)
The dust hasn’t settled, but so far Islamists have not taken over the revolution; nor, as Mona Eltahawy points out is so often the case in the Middle East, is this “revolution” a euphemism for “military coup.” There is reason to hope that Tunisia’s will be the Middle East’s first genuinely democratic revolution.
Thus, Tunisia tends to support the liberal/neoconservative stance best articulated in Natan Sharansky’s “The Case for Democracy.” Sharansky’s notion—that what ails the Arab world is the lack of liberal democracy; that the cure is liberal democracy; that the Arabs want and deserve liberal democracy as much as other peoples—has never been taken sufficiently seriously. On the one hand, multiculturalism-gone-mad can’t bear to admit that the current Arab state of affairs is unsatisfactory. On the other hand, eyes-clamped-shut-conservatism tends to believe that Arabs are incapable of anything better, certainly not democracy.
They’re wrong. Sharansky is right.
So what ripples are spreading from the stone thrown into the Tunisian pond? Here are some.
Demonstrators set themselves on fire in next-door neighbor Algeria, echoing the origin of the Tunisian revolt. There will be an unauthorized opposition march in Algiers on January 22. Students at the Mouloud-Mammeri University at Tizi-Ouzou said in a statement that the uprising in Tunisia “inspired and motivated all the patriots of North Africa.”
The government of Bahrain nervously said: “The kingdom is following up the latest political developments in Tunisia… It attaches great importance on working on restoring calm and stability.”
In Egypt, activists are calling for January 25 to be a day of protest. President Hosni Mubarak is old and dying. He wants his son to succeed him. The strongest opposition force is the Muslim Brotherhood, which might achieve power via elections, but would never peacefully relinquish that power.
Iraq is relatively far down the road of democracy, after its liberation by the United States and its allies. But it is under attack from one side by Sunni Islamists in the al-Qaeda mold, and from the other by Shia Islamists supported by Iran. Iraq’s emergence as a liberal democracy is not a sure thing. But perhaps the Tunisian example will hearten Iraqi patriots and help liberalism take root.
The mullahs of Iran, along with the Revolutionary Guards, have successfully repressed the protest movement that arose after the stolen presidential election of 2010. But Iranians have taken note of Tunisia; it may give them renewed energy.
Demonstrations and protests against economic conditions and corruption in Jordan could blossom into demands for democracy. The Islamist opposition party Islamic Action Front demanded that the prime minister be elected, not appointed by the king. Here is the familiar tactic of non-democrats exploiting democracy to try to increase their own power.
Lebanon is facing its Hizbolla-instigated crisis—civil war, not greater democracy, is the looming issue. Tunisia holds the world headlines today, but Lebanon could easily take center stage in a minute if its situation deteriorates. But if the rest of the region liberalized, it is unlikely that Hizbolla could maintain its stranglehold on Lebanese politics.
Libya is led by aging dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who said that he “regrets” Ben Ali’s departure, as well he might, it being the sort of precedent that the Libyan people could study to their advantage.
A man in the Mauritania set himself ablaze. The stunt hasn’t yet triggered anti-government demonstrations, though.
Morocco’s foreign ministry expressed “deep solidarity” with the people of Tunisia, and expounded on the merits of stability and security, knowing that Morocco’s king could be next to get the boot.
The small Gulf country of Oman saw a small protest on January 17. The theme was familiar: high food prices and corruption. It’s too soon to tell whether this will burn out or grow into something significant.
The Palestinians, of course, need a revolution of liberal democracy more than most. Hamas-ruled Gaza is tightly controlled and popular dissent is likely to be smashed ruthlessly. However, in the Palestinian Authority-governed West Bank/Judea and Samaria, under the leadership of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, credible institutions, relatively free of corruption, are being created. But Fayyad competes with a deranged culture, the prestige of violence and deep-seated hostility to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. Which tendency will prevail is the key to the Israeli-Palestinian question.
Qatar said that it respects the choice of the Tunisian people, a mild and ambiguous remark for those trying to divine the government’s attitude toward domestic reform.
The king of Saudi Arabia is old and sick. When he dies, power will pass to an equally aged relative. King Abdullah is regarded as a bit of a reformer, but conservative tendencies are just as strong in ruling circles. Saudi Arabia is ground zero for Wahhabism, as well as having a very discontented, modernly-oriented younger population. So, a popular uprising a la Tunisia is not inconceivable.
Somalia, alas, is too much of a basket case to seriously notice what’s happening in Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world.
Sudan is splitting in two, and will be preoccupied with that task for a while. The northern, Arab half is likely to embrace its inner Islamism, at least for a while.
Syria’s dictatorship is very well-entrenched, very brutal and ruthless, and closely tied to the Iranian mullocracy. One is not optimistic for the short-term. Still, the government raised the subsidy on heating oil by 72%, which suggests some fear of popular disapproval. Al-Watan newspaper said:”The guarantor of stability is people sticking with their leadership. This is the experience of Syria, whose leadership has been always on the side of the aspirations of the people.” Two lies in two sentences.
Finally, there was a student demonstration on January 16 in Yemen. An opposition leader said: “”We have a message to all oppressors, we say to them: Leave before you are forced to leave! Make concessions to the peoples before you have to offer it to them during your escape. Zine al-Abidine has made a lot of concessions, but then time ran out.”
So an “Arab Spring” is not inconceivable. But extreme caution is required. Not every food riot is the Boston Tea Party, and not every protester is a Thomas Jefferson. Liberal democracy is not inevitable. Everywhere there could be push-back. Islamists in particular have shown themselves capable of taking advantage of both disorder and elections. Don’t forget Turkey’s Erdogan’s remark that democracy is like a bus—we can take it until we arrive at our destination, then get off. Elections aren’t by themselves democracy—elections should be the culmination, not the starting point, of liberalization.
An important factor in the process will be the policy of the United States and the other existing liberal democracies. America always favors democracy rhetorically, but not always in practice.
If democracy is to spread in the Middle East, we have to be patient, be prepared for a period of instability, and be appropriately modest about our ability to manage the course of events. But being on the side of the region’s liberal democrats is absolutely essential. Since liberal democracies tend not to be dangerous to one another, supporting this trend is in our national interest of a peaceful world. The likely alternative is the Islamists, which will lead to increased violence in the region and the world.