Freedom may be messy, but it beats despotism

The Arab Spring toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Yemen and Syria may be next. Though trials remain, we are witnessing an extraordinary fight for freedom. What emerges may not be the kind of democracy Westerners want, but it beats tyranny.

It’s been a bad year for despots. The Arab Spring swept them out of power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Who’s next? And what kind of democracy will the Arab world embrace?

The most discussed prospects for the next toppling are the leaders of Syria and Yemen. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was once touted as a Western-educated possible convert to democratic reform. He has turned out to be as murderous as his father who ruled before him. A rebellion there is protracted, but protesters appear determined. Now the Arab League is working on a plan for free elections in Syria and the withdrawal of tanks and armored vehicles from the streets.

Meanwhile Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose cunning has kept him in power for more than three decades, is besieged but reneging on deals to leave. All-out civil war threatens.

Other Arab rulers, like King Abdullah of Jordan and King Mohammed of Morocco, with an eye to the political storm sweeping across the desert, have talked of ceding some of their monarchial power to the people. It remains to be seen whether this can save them in the longterm.

In Saudi Arabia, the monarchy has sought to stave off discontent by distributing oil-profit largess to its subjects. It has promised to empower women with the vote in local elections. Since the recent death of Crown Prince Sultan, the new heir to the throne is Prince Nayef, the interior minister who has cracked down on Islamic terrorists. He has a close relationship with his country’s influential conservative clergy and has opposed some of the monarchy’s reforms. Should he succeed King Abdullah, he will be confronted by rising public expectations.

Thanks to American sacrifice, Iraq has been freed of its cruel dictator, Saddam Hussein. Today’s fractured government of many voices and parties is hardly ideal. But it is the kind of fumbling democracy with which Westerners must show patience as millions of Muslims find their new, liberated way. The real issue for Iraqis is whether they want their nation to become a satrapy of their looming Iranian neighbor.

Tunisia, which led the Arab Spring to freedom, seems off to a reasonable democratic start with its October elections.

Egyptians, post-President Hosni Mubarak, are wrestling with the reluctance of the military to surrender the levers of power and commerce.

Libya’s people will benefit now from the nation’s substantial oil revenue that Muammar Qaddafi and his family hoarded. But a land of more than 100 diverse tribes must have free elections, devise a coherent system of government, and build an infrastructure for a people who for more than 40 years have been ruled by a tyrant’s whim.

The great hope in the Middle East is the way women are participating in political change, bravely on the barricades, demanding a voice in formulating new governments, and claiming the respect that has long eluded them. Are other dictators around the world heeding the fate of these toppled Arab tyrants?

Iran is of the Middle East but not an Arab country. Its dictatorial Islamic leaders appear to have learned nothing from the lessons of the Arab Spring.

In North Korea, Kim Jong-il intends to continue the tradition of family dictatorship by anointing his son successor.

In Central America, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has been dealing with ill health but shows little readiness to step down.

In Cuba, Raúl Castro has introduced some modest reforms, but no new blood, in his ruling regime and shows little intention of doing so.

In Africa, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe runs a brutal dictatorship that has killed and imprisoned opponents who protest his rule – which also makes a sham of his “power sharing” deal with the opposition. Other African nations have been timid in challenging him.

Despite lingering tyrants, we are witnessing an extraordinary upheaval in favor of freedom in a critical part of the world. Trials remain. It may not be the kind of democracy that Westerners enjoy or would like to see emerge. But as that wise man Winston Churchill proclaimed: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all those others that have been tried.”

Freedom may be messy, but it beats despotism.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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