Democracy comes in waves, and Tunisia's 'jasmine revolution' may be the Arabs' turn

The rise of democracies since World War II seemed to come region by region, from Africa to Latin America to Asia. Are Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East next?

Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
A man walks in central Tunis on Jan. 21, a week after the ouster of veteran ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Democracy is written on the wall in the background.

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?

And even more important, would a Tunisian revolution inspire revolts in the remaining Arab autocracies of North Africa and the Middle East?

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.

In Asia, the Philippines "people power" revolution of 1986 against the Marcos dictatorship helped lead to democracy in South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia (and a failed attempt in Burma).

In the 1990s, the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc brought democracy to Eastern and Central Europe. (Russia and much of Central Asia, however, have yet to grasp democracy.)

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.

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