Letting things settle: Arab Spring may be faltering, but democracies aren't built overnight

  • This artwork by Nancy Ohanian relates to political and social instability in Egypt.

Roughly 2? years after the revolutions in the Arab world, not a single country is yet plainly on course to become a stable, peaceful democracy. The countries that were more hopeful — Libya, Tunisia and Yemen — have been struggling. A chaotic experiment with democracy in Egypt, the most populous of them, has landed an elected president behind bars. Syria is awash with the blood of civil war.

No wonder some have come to think the Arab spring is doomed. The Middle East, they argue, is not ready to change.

One reason is that it does not have democratic institutions, so people power will decay into anarchy or provoke the reimposition of dictatorship. The other is that the region's one cohesive force is Islam, which — it is argued — cannot accommodate democracy.

The Middle East, they conclude, would be better off if the Arab spring had never happened at all.

That view is at best premature, at worst wrong. Democratic transitions are often violent and lengthy. The worst consequences of the Arab Spring, in Libya initially and in Syria now, are dreadful. Yet most Arabs do not want to turn back the clock.

Those who say that the Arab spring has failed ignore the long winter before, and its impact on people's lives. In 1960, Egypt and South Korea shared similar life-expectancy and GDP per head. Today, they inhabit different worlds. Although many more Egyptians now live in cities and three-quarters of the population is literate, GDP per head is only a fifth of South Korea's. Poverty and stunting from malnutrition are far too common. The Muslim Brotherhood's brief, incompetent government did nothing to reverse this, but Egypt's deeper problems were aggravated by the strongmen who preceded them. Many other Arab countries fared no better.

This matters because, given the Arab Spring's uneven progress, many say that the answer is authoritarian modernization, an Augusto Pinochet, Lee Kuan Yew or Deng Xiaoping to keep order and make the economy grow.

Unlike southeast Asians, the Arabs can boast no philosopher-king who has willingly nurtured democracy as his economy has flourished. Instead the dictator's brothers and the first lady's cousins get all the best businesses. The despots, always wary of stirring up the masses, have tended to duck the big challenges of reform, such as gradually removing the energy subsidies that in Egypt swallow a whopping 8 percent of GDP.

Even now, the oil-rich monarchies are trying to buy peace — but, as an educated and disenfranchised youth culture sniffs freedom, the old way of doing things looks ever more impossible unless, as in Syria, the ruler is prepared to shed vast amounts of blood to stay in charge. Some of the more forward-looking Arab monarchies, for example in Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco, are groping toward constitutional systems that give their subjects a bigger say.

Fine, some will reply, but Arab democracy merely leads to rule by the Islamists, who are no more capable of reform than the strongmen and, thanks to the intolerance of political Islam, deeply undemocratic.

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