The rise in the number of democracies that began after World War II has stalled in recent years – which makes the still-unresolved “jasmine revolution” in Tunisia worth watching, for two reasons:
Will it be a real revolution, firmly rejecting dictatorship for democracy?
Democracy’s growth during the 20th century did seem to come in regional waves.
Africa saw its long, difficult march toward freedom start during the 1950s and ’60s as European powers were forced to let their colonies become independent.
In Latin America, many right-wing dictatorships fell during the 1980s in large part because of a regional debt crisis.
Arab nations are long overdue in joining this global trend. President George W. Bush tried to set up Iraq as a democratic model for the region, an experiment still in the works. But the US interest in working with Arab autocrats to suppress terrorist-supporting Islamic groups only works against America’s historic role in promoting democracy. That conflicted attitude is most noticeable in US support of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Saudi monarchy
Elections in the Middle East can also backfire if they strengthen Islamic groups not really committed to democratic ideals. The militant group Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections, which led to civil conflict. In 2005, Lebanon’s “cedar revolution” forced out Syrian troops, but the nation’s politics is still beholden to the radical Shiite group Hezbollah.
Tunisia’s overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship could be an isolated event, or it could set in slow motion a democracy movement among other Arab nations, similar to the birth of Poland’s Solidarity movement in 1980.
With more and more democracies, life can become more difficult for the world's anti-democratic forces – communists in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, and power-clinging autocrats like those in Venezuela, Iran, Burma, and Belarus.
The arc of history is for more democracy, not less. The next chapter may have started in Tunisia.