s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 5 of 15 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 10 of 15 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

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.

President Muhammad Morsi, the Brotherhood leader evicted earlier this month by the generals at the apparent behest of many millions of Egyptians in the street, was democratically elected, yet did his best to flout the norms of democracy during his short stint as president. Many secular Arabs, and their friends in the West, now argue that, because Islamists tend to regard their rule as God-given, they never will accept that a proper democracy must include checks and balances including independent courts, a free press, devolved powers and a pluralistic constitution to protect minorities.

This too, though, is wrong. Outside the Arab world Islamists — in Indonesia and Malaysia, for example — have shown that they can learn the habit of democracy. In Turkey the protests against the autocratic but elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have more in common with Brazil than the Arab Spring. Turkey, for all its faults, is more democratic today than it was when the army lurked in the background.

The problem, then, is with Arab Islamists. That is hardly surprising. They have been schooled by decades of repression, which their movements survived only by being conspiratorial and tightly organized. Their core supporters are a sizable minority in most Arab countries. They cannot be ignored, and instead must be absorbed into the mainstream.

That is why Egypt's coup is so tragic. Had the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power, it might have learned the tolerance and pragmatism needed for running a country. Instead, its suspicions about democratic politics have been confirmed.

Now it is up to Tunisia, the first of the Arab countries to throw off the yoke of autocracy, to show that Arab Islamists can run countries decently. It might manage it: Tunisia is on its way to getting a constitution that could serve as the basis of a decent, inclusive democracy. If the rest of the Arab world moves in that direction, it will take many years to do so.

That would not be surprising, because political change is a long game. Hindsight tends to smooth the messy bits of history. The transition from communism, for instance, looks easy in retrospect. Three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, Eastern Europe was overrun by criminal mafias, extremist politicians were prominent in Poland, Slovakia and the Baltics, the Balkans were about to degenerate into war and there was fighting in Georgia. Even now, most people in the old Soviet bloc live under repressive regimes — yet few want to go back.

The Arab Spring was always better described as an awakening, the real revolution not so much in the street as in the mind. The Internet, social media, satellite television and the thirst for education, among Arab women as much as among men, cannot coexist with the deadening dictatorships of old. Egyptians, among others, are learning that democracy is neither a simple question of elections nor a test of the ability to bring millions of protesters onto the street.

Getting there was always bound to be messy, even bloody. The journey may take decades, but it is still welcome.