The revolutions of 2011 have proven that Arab culture is not incompatible with democracy. But the quest for freedom is far from complete, and many dangers lie aheadby Eugene Rogan / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
One for the album: Egyptians pose for photographs on an army tank in Cairo, two days after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak
When democratic reforms swept the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Arab countries seemed to get left behind. All of the Arab regimes that were in control then were still in power at the start of this year—with the notable exception of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athists in Iraq. Some blamed Arab culture for this, others said that Islam was incompatible with democracy, but most agreed that the Arabs were bucking the global trend of greater democracy. Yet the events of 2011 have decisively undermined the notion that the Arabs aren’t ready for—or don’t want—democracy. The question is, will they achieve it?
The demands for political freedoms that have been sweeping the region over the past weeks and months, from north Africa through the Middle East to the Persian Gulf, underscore the broad-based desire for change—a desire shared by groups as diverse as the religious conservatives of the Jordanian Islamic Action Front through to the left-leaning secular nationalists of Yemen’s Joint Meeting Parties. Repressed for decades by their governments, denied basic freedoms, and driven to some of the lowest levels of human development in the world, millions of Arabs have reached breaking point; and the solution they are seeking is the right to choose—and change—their rulers by vote.
Yet dangers lie ahead. While the people of Tunisia and Egypt have already demonstrated to their Arab brethren that popular protests can bring down even the most entrenched autocrats, they have yet to show how to create a stable political order in the aftermath. Whether this can be achieved remains to be seen, particularly in Egypt, where the army—a force many Egyptians are wary of after six decades of a military regime—is now in charge. Democracies take time to establish, but time also favours chaos in the absence of a working government.
The nature of the uprisings has partly laid to rest fears of a region-wide Islamic revolution. The Islamist parties—the Nahda in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—did not initiate the revolts and have fallen in line with the consensus demands for democracy. They are calling for political reforms under the rule of law, not the imposition of Islamic law. Their role model is the ruling Islamist Justice and Development party in Turkey, not the Islamic…