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The Fourth Wave

Where the Middle East revolts fit in the history of democratization—and how we can support them.

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 to 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.

It is early to assess the global impact on democracy of this new Arab awakening, but there are four reasons to think that what has happened in the Middle East could have much broader ramifications for democratic progress. The first is that the events in the Middle East offer powerful and, I would argue, conclusive evidence supporting the idea that democracy is a universal value. The Arab Middle East was the only major region of the world that the Third Wave had bypassed completely, leading some commentators to coin the phrase “Arab exceptionalism” to characterize this phenomenon. The Economist magazine, in an article that appeared, ironically, just two weeks before the beginning of the uprising in Tunisia, summarized the various arguments that had been offered to explain the democracy deficit in the Arab world—among them the undemocratic character of Islam and Arab culture, the colonial inheritance of artificial borders and states that weakened a focus on citizen rights, the manipulation by Arab rulers of the conflict with Israel and the fear of the Islamists, and the abundance of oil which both enriched the regimes and freed them from having to serve the needs of tax-paying citizens. All of these are strong arguments, but the fact that they have now been refuted by millions of Arab citizens ready to risk their lives for freedom affirms with remarkable force the message that all people have dignity and should be treated with respect. This message has certainly been heard in countries far beyond the Middle East.

A second reason the Middle East events have the potential to mushroom involves popular attitudes towards democracy. The protests succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt, and stimulated further protests in other countries, partly because democracy enjoys broad popular support in the Middle East. Such support was reflected in the Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights that was approved in October, two months before the start of the uprisings, and approved by over 2,200 Arab intellectuals. In addition, the World Values Survey and other opinion polls conducted over the past decade in Algeria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine and Kuwait show that between 80 and 90 percent of the people want their countries to be ruled by democratic systems. These numbers are similar to the level of support for democracy in other regions. Summarizing the data, Larry Diamond observed last summer that “Public opinion surveys in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the post-communist states, and the Arab states all show majorities of the public within each region prefer democracy as the best form of government. Strikingly, this is true even in the poorer countries of Africa and Asia, and in Arab countries with no direct experience of democracy.” Thus, the demand for democracy that we’ve seen in the Middle East could easily spread to countries in other regions that are still ruled by authoritarian governments.

This suggests a third reason democracy could spread, which is that autocratic regimes in the world today are all, to one degree or another, vulnerable and unstable. This is true, for example, of the three regimes I mentioned earlier that took repressive measures at the end of last year. Putin may be in control in Russia, but he has lost the support of the political elite which fears that his return to the presidency will usher in a period of Brezhnev-like stagnation and continued economic and societal decline. Lukashenko’s decision to crack down in Belarus was taken to head off a popular challenge to the election result, which most opinion analysis and observer reports showed did not give him a victory in the first round. And Chavez assumed decree powers to neutralize the National Assembly, where the opposition has a far greater presence after its victory in the popular vote in last September’s parliamentary election.

Other autocracies are also showing signs of trouble. Fidel Castro has conceded that “the Cuban model doesn’t work for us anymore;” and the China model, for all its economic success, appears less stable in light of what The Economist called Beijing’s “disastrous” response to Liu Xiaobo’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, which it said “betrays the government’s insecurity at home.” The Iranian regime succeeded in repressing the Green Revolution, just as the military in Burma crushed the Saffron Revolution two years earlier. But both uprisings had mass popular support and exposed the inherent illegitimacy of each regime. The inexorable erosion of the grotesque dictatorship in North Korea continues apace, with South Korea discreetly preparing for the eventual reunification even as international attention remains focused on the nuclear threat from the North. Tocqueville’s recollection of the 1848 revolutions applies to many contemporary autocracies: “Society was cut in two: those who had nothing were united in common envy, and those who had anything united in common terror.”

The principal new factor responsible for the vulnerability of autocratic regimes today is the rapid growth of new communications technologies and social networks, and this is the fourth reason to think that the contagiousness of the Middle East uprisings could spread. These technologies were a key factor in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Without the Internet, the corruption of Ben Ali and his cronies would not have inflamed public opinion the way it did, leading to the sudden eruption of outrage following the death of Mohamed Bouazizi. And before the Internet, the murder in Alexandria by two police officers of Khaled Sa’id, a young blogger who had posted a video of them sharing the spoils of a drug bust, would have received little attention. But in this new age a half-million Egyptians joined the “We Are All Khaled Sa’id” Facebook page, and it was this page that initiated the January 25 revolution.

Of course not every networked movement is successful. The fact that the Green Revolution in Iran used Twitter, Facebook pages and blogs to great effect as tools for mobilization did not prevent its being crushed by the police and Basij. And China employs more than 50,000 cyber police to enforce the government’s Great Firewall of Internet censorship to control and keep tabs on what is now, at some 400 million people, the world’s largest population of Internet users. We can expect these and other autocratic regimes to use all the means at their disposal to prevent the use of the Internet by political opponents, including hacking and social malware attacks on opposition websites and even shutting down the Internet entirely, as the Burmese and Egyptian governments did during their respective uprisings. Nonetheless, they cannot change the underlying reality, which is that there is a sharpening the contradiction today between closed and repressive states and increasingly networked, informed and awakened populations, creating a revolutionary crisis of the political order.

So what can we do to ensure that autocracies do not snuff out this democratic chain reaction? The first and most important priority will be to assist in every way we can the transitions that are underway, or may soon be underway, in the Middle East—and to do so in a manner that is responsive to the local actors, informed by the accumulated knowledge of democratic transitions that is now available, and clearly focused on the long-term goal of achieving stable democracy under the rule of law. We shouldn’t forget that Portugal is seen in retrospect to have initiated the Third Wave only because its Carnation Revolution was followed by a successful democratic transition and not a Communist takeover, which Kissinger at the time believed was inevitable. The transitions in the Middle East will be even harder to accomplish because these countries lack democratic experience and natural founding leaders like Mario Soares, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela, though they do possess the youthful energy of an emerging civil society, untapped reserves of local talent, and a new sense of pride and identity that can be built on in the period ahead.

The Middle East transitions will vary from one country to another, depending on local circumstances. Until now, most of the attention has been focused on Tunisia and Egypt where dictators were overthrown. But it may well be that the transitions there will be more difficult than in countries like Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen and Morocco if the leaders in these countries recognize that reform must be accelerated and deepened and, without delay, enter into serious dialogue and negotiation with opposition forces, many of which actually prefer this approach to regime change.

If these transitions are to succeed and not be blocked by the former ruling elite or captured by a new authoritarian movement, the experience of earlier transitions in Latin America, Southern and Central Europe and Asia tell us that a number of key steps need to be taken. The first is the creation of an interim civilian authority that can work with the political opposition and civic groups to determine the rules, design and timetable of the transition. The organization of an inclusive national dialogue or roundtable negotiation has been very helpful in earlier transitions. An immediate task is the removal of elements inherited from the old system, such as laws restricting the freedom of expression and political organization, which stand in the way of a fair and inclusive way of choosing a new government and drafting a new constitution. While elections need to be held relatively soon, it is best that they be sequenced in a way that allows them to be well organized and fairly administered, gives new political forces that were stifled under the old system time to organize, and are conducted under an electoral law will allow all significant elements of the society to be fairly represented in a new parliament, which might also serve as a constituent assembly. Designing such an electoral law is an exceedingly complex task, which is why it’s probably best to proceed first with the election of an interim president, whose tenure should be limited to the time it will take to draft a new constitution and hold elections for a new government. Whatever process is determined for drafting the constitution, it’s essential that it have broad public participation and buy-in.

International groups should be prepared to provide whatever assistance is needed and desired by local actors. Areas of support would include party development and election administration and monitoring, strengthening civil society and independent media, and making available the expertise of specialists in such fields as constitutionalism and electoral law as well as the experience of participants in earlier transitions. For example, CIPE and NDI, two of NED’s four core institutes, just arranged for an opposition leader of the Chilean transition in the late 1980s, Sergio Bitar, to speak by video link to a conference of 200 Egyptian NGO, party, media, academic and business representatives about how the Chilean democrats built consensus on a common platform, kept the military in check, and dealt with issues of human rights violations by the old regime. The conference was convened to build consensus behind recommendations to be submitted to the interim military authority on the transition process, the constitution, and the economy.

Significantly, the participants at the conference expressed great concern that the Supreme Military Council, the interim authority, is rushing the transition and not seeking any significant citizen input in the process. This is very worrisome, and it will clearly be necessary for the popular forces, whose protests achieved the democratic breakthrough, to monitor the process with vigilance to prevent its being subverted by the military and the old guard.

Such vigilance is also needed in Tunisia, where opposition forces have formed a committee to protect the revolution that is demanding a new constitutional assembly. Members of this committee took part last month in a public debate with Yadh Ben Achour, the President of the Interim government’s Political Reform Commission. The debate was organized, I might note, by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, which is a long-time NED grantee. CSID reported that at the meeting Ben Achour accepted the idea of a constitutional assembly which, if it holds true, is a major step forward.

The United States has a great stake in the success of these transitions and should use its influence with the different governments, which is some cases is quite significant, to encourage them reach out to opposition parties and civic groups and negotiate in good faith. Only a failed or aborted transition will create the conditions of instability that could enable anti-democratic forces, Islamist or secular, to obtain a dominant position. If the transition process is open and fair; if new political forces are given time to organize; if the electoral law is crafted to encourage inclusive representation; and if elections are free and fair and become routine, it is unlikely that even a group as well organized as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could achieve a hegemonic position. Noteworthy in this regard is a study published last spring in NED’s Journal of Democracy that surveyed the electoral performance of Islamic parties in 89 parliamentary elections in 21 countries over the past forty years. It found that they averaged about 15 percent of the vote in each, and that they tended to do worse the freer and more routinized elections were. Interestingly, Islamic parties also tended to do best in first elections after a period of authoritarian rule, when they were able to use their access to the mosque and the street to be the best organized opposition force; and their popularity is greater, as a general rule, when their electoral option is suppressed than when it is exercised. In other words, to paraphrase the famous slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood, democracy is the solution.

And so, of course, is economic reform, which must proceed in tandem with democratic political change. Political reform by itself is not enough. If democracy does not deliver for the people and continues to serve just the interests of entrenched elites that have dominated the economy for decades, public disillusionment and anger will reemerge and produce more upheaval. The answer is not economic populism which will not produce jobs and opportunity. The solution lies in fundamental institutional reform, including changes in the educational system to raise labor productivity and provide young people with the skills needed to compete in a global economy. A second priority will be removing barriers to entrepreneurship that have forced more than 80 percent of Egyptian businesses into the informal, extra-legal sector. This will require regulatory reform, the protection of property rights and contract enforcement, and changes in antiquated bankruptcy laws that inhibit risk-taking, all of which will require reform of the judicial system. The problem of corruption will also have to be addressed by building broad coalitions of business and civil society to ensure transparency and accountability in decision-making. This, in turn, will require a new opening for freedom of association—for business associations and trade unions as well as NGOs—which is the crucial link between democratic political change and economic reform. Building an inclusive economic and political system is a tall order, and it will not happen quickly. But it’s necessary to get started now.

If Egypt and the other countries undergoing transition commit themselves to a plan for real political and economic reform, the United States should be prepared to mobilize support for a program of international assistance of historic proportions—involving our own and other governments, the private sector, universities and other private institutions—to help these transitions succeed, leading to a new era of democracy in the Middle East.

A global strategy to advance democracy beyond the Middle East must start from the premise that the struggle for freedom in authoritarian countries will be more, not less, difficult in the period ahead. This is because the implications of the Arab awakening have alarmed autocratic leaders who are now desperately tightening political controls. In Zimbabwe, for example, 46 people were arrested and charged with treason for attending a lecture on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Two independent U.N. experts have reported a “dramatic surge” in executions in Iran, where a parliamentary session opened two weeks ago with a mob of over 200 members chanting “Death to Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami”—respectively the former Prime Minister, Speaker, and President—for supporting a demonstration in Tehran’s main square in solidarity with the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. In Burma, where Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has speculated that the Burmese military might someday follow the Egyptian model and not “fire on the people,” the regime has threatened her with a “tragic end.” In China, an anonymous online call for a “jasmine revolution” has sparked the harshest crackdown in recent years, with over 100 activists and lawyers in the last week subjected to such restrictions as criminal detention and involuntary disappearance, while even the words “today” and “tomorrow” have been banned on Chinese social media to prevent announcements of demonstrations. In Cuba, a long article by Fidel Castro expressing support for Gadhafi has been read by activists as a warning that the regime would follow the model of the Libyan dictator in response to a people’s uprising. Even in North Korea, where controls are tightest, special riot squads have been set up since the Middle East uprisings, and none of the hundreds of North Korean workers and medical personnel in Libya are being evacuated for fear that they might share information about the demonstrations they witnessed if they returned home.

Such repression can be expected to grow worse as regimes turn these threats and ad hoc reactions into comprehensive survival strategies in this new period. In developing a counter-strategy, it might be useful to reflect on the parallel recent experience of the backlash against civil society that Russia initiated in reaction to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, and that was quickly adopted by many other governments, Egypt among them, that shared Russia’s fear of so-called “colored revolutions.”

The World Movement for Democracy took the lead in responding to this new challenge, issuing a report entitled “Defending Civil Society” that described the new laws and restrictions governing the work of independent NGOs and democracy assistance organizations, and setting forth the international principles that govern civil society and protect NGOs from the repressive intrusion of governments. An international campaign was then launched, starting with the mobilization of civil society and democracy assistance organizations and eventually reaching out to governments and international bodies. Secretary of State Clinton embraced this campaign with her address on civil society that was delivered to the Community of Democracies last July, and Canada now heads a working group of the Community that coordinates the work of governments and civil society groups in responding to new threats. There is also now for the first time a UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.

Something like this campaign must now be mounted to protect people on the front lines of the fight for freedom from the dangers posed by dictators trying to quarantine their regimes from the political repercussions of the Middle East revolutions. As with the defending civil society campaign, it will be necessary to build cooperation among civil society groups and democracy assistance organizations, and to engage international democracy-support networks like the World Movement for Democracy, the inter-governmental Community of Democracies, and the Parliamentary Forum, a new global network of like-minded legislators. Transatlantic cooperation is essential, but if this effort is to have a truly global character, it’s also important to enlist the participation of emerging market democracies like India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, South Africa, and South Korea that until now have been largely ambivalent about supporting democracy internationally.

In addition to building international awareness and political support, this campaign needs to focus on three issues that will have a special bearing on the freedom struggles taking place in authoritarian countries. The first is the defense of human rights, a priority in this context since many of the countries where people will need help are among the world’s toughest dictatorships. Second, much greater attention will need to be given to support for Internet freedom, including helping groups gain secure and free access to the Internet, defend themselves against malware and other attacks, network with counterpart groups, and connect with donors and technology specialists who can address their specific needs. Finally, special focus will need to be placed on aiding the democracy struggle in China, not because it’s a large country with growing in wealth and power, but because, in the words of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, China now serves as “a blood transfusion machine for other dictatorships.” Liu doesn’t mince words: China, he said before he was imprisoned two years ago, is “a key link” in the global fight for democracy, and “rescue[ing] the world’s largest hostage population from enslavement is not only a matter of vital importance for the Chinese people themselves, but also a matter of vital importance for all free nations.”

The events in the Middle East are still unfolding, and it will probably be many years before we know if the transformation that has now begun will lead to a region and a world that is more democratic, more modern, and more peaceful. The transitions will encounter many obstacles and setbacks, and even where they are successful they will inevitably be accompanied by disappointment. Speaking about “the post-revolutionary hangover” two years into Poland’s transition, the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski observed that there has never been a successful revolution that did not produce “massive disappointment almost at the very moment of its victory,” since having “extremely inflated hopes” is “a necessary condition of success.” One is reminded of the “grumbling” against Moses and Aaron that occurred immediately after the exodus from Egypt.

Still, these revolutions have been historic, and their impact has already been felt far beyond the Middle East. This became clear to me recently when I was visited by Sam Rainsy, an exiled democratic dissident from Cambodia. He looked at me with a glow in his eye and said, “They showed that it can be done. Now people have the idea that change is possible, and that’s the most important thing of all.”

Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy. This article was adapted from a lecture given at New York University on March 1, 2011. 

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