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Walter Rodgers

As Arab strongmen exit, will democracy really take root?

In Western history, state churches had to be weakened, monarchies discarded, and the 'divine right of kings' forfeited for democracy to grow. Which institutions and traditions are Arab nations prepared to give up? Something more than strongmen have to go if the new is to replace the old.

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Will democracy really take root?

The journalists raving about a new era of democracy for the Middle East often have thin credentials and little regional or historical perspective. Privately, many policy wonks are skeptical that democracy – meaning a culture that honors self-government, not just official elections – will take root in Egypt.

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The world is too easily seduced by slogans: The “war to end all wars” in 1914 was followed a generation later by the bloodiest war in human history. President George H.W. Bush’s “new world order” merely shuffled the deck. Next came President Clinton’s “nation building.” Somalia is a failed state.

When Soviet Communism was in its death throes, Western reporters in Moscow were rightly skeptical about Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, understanding that Russia missed the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, each an early incubator of liberal democracy.

It takes long historical cycles – hundreds of years – to nurture the institutions of liberal democracies. Even such thoroughly modern countries as Germany, Japan, Spain, and Italy only joined the fraternity in the past 75 years.

History had to work hard for change

From Magna Carta in 1215 through the American Revolution, proponents of representative government wisely hedged their bets. Then and now, democratic government is far from a historical certitude. The American revolutionaries had the advantage of already being English subjects exercising the rights of Englishmen to better secure the traditional protection of English Common Law.

Still, state churches had to be weakened for democracy to grow. A thousand years of monarchal supremacy had to be discarded and the “divine right of kings” had to be forfeited.

Which institutions and traditions are Arab nations prepared to forfeit? Something more than strongmen have to go if the new is to replace the old. That is what revolutions are about.

RELATED: What Muslim nations can learn from the 'infidels' – how to fight corruption

After World War II, the United States labored mightily to build constitutional governments in Europe and Japan. If the people of the Middle East really want democratic government they might begin by scrapping the centuries-old Islamic idea that they have little to learn from Western infidels. They might also memorize Wendell Phillips’s warning, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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