Carl Gershman: Where Do the Middle East Revolts Fit in the History of Democratization?





[Carl Gershman is President of the National Endowment for Democracy.]

Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that all the great events of the past 700 years—from the Crusades and English wars that decimated the nobles, to the discovery of firearms and the art of printing, to the rise of Protestantism and the discovery of America—had the ineluctable effect of advancing the principle of equality. Political scientist Samuel Huntington went further and identified several historical waves of democratization. The First Wave began with our own revolution in 1776, which was quickly followed by the French Revolution. The Second Wave followed the victory of the Allies in World War II.

The Third Wave, according to Huntington’s thesis, was a global process that began in 1974 with the fall of the military government in Portugal and the death in 1975 of Francisco Franco, followed in both countries by successful democratic transitions. It then spread to Latin America, Asia, Central Europe and Africa, with the number of countries judged to be democracies in the Freedom House annual surveys more than tripling from 39 in 1974 to a high of 123 in 2005. This wave was the result of several factors, including economic growth, the spread of democratic values that undermined the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes, policy changes in Europe and the United States, and the demonstration effect of earlier transitions that Huntington called “snowballing.” To this thesis, Huntington also added the idea of “reverse waves,” or reactions against democratic progress, the first being the rise of fascism and communism in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the second the resurgence of authoritarianism in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the 1960s and ‘70s.

During the last five years, we have witnessed one of these reversals, though the consensus among democracy specialists is that it has not been a full-scale reverse wave of the kind experienced earlier but rather a democratic “recession.” The number of democracies dipped in 2010 to 114, while the number of countries registering declines in political rights over the last five years has exceeded those registering gains by 77 to 57. Among the developments contributing to these declines have been a widespread crackdown on NGOs, independent media, and opposition political groups in hybrid or semi-authoritarian countries; a much more robust assertiveness internationally by autocracies such as Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and China, whose rising power has itself been a factor contributing democracy’s decline; and a seeming loss of political will and self-confidence in the leading democracies as a result of political divisions over Iraq “enlargement fatigue” in the EU, and more recently the severe impact of the global economic crisis touched off by the market collapse of 2008. As 2010 drew to a close, the backsliding accelerated with a flurry of new setbacks—notably the rigged re-sentencing of dissident entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia, the brutal repression of the political opposition in Belarus following the December 19 presidential election, and the passage of a spate of repressive new laws in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez assumed decree powers.

Yet at the very moment those events were occurring, nonviolent democratic protests broke out in Tunisia. They toppled the country’s autocratic government and spread to Egypt, Libya, and across the rest of the Middle East. And we were suddenly presented with a new global situation, in which the possibilities for democratization seemed utterly transformed. The questions we now face are twofold: First, are we witnessing the beginning of a Fourth Wave of democratization, which could extend democracy’s reach into other regions of the world that have been most resistant to democratic change? Second, because such a development would clearly be in the interests of the United States, what can we do to ensure that the potential of these democratic uprisings is realized? The following are some thoughts on the nature of the current Arab revolt and a forward strategy, if you will, for advancing freedom in the world...

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