One year ago on Jan. 25, Egypt began a popular uprising that, in just 18 days, felled a longtime dictator. The stunning event, which reversed old notions about Arabs being apathetic toward freedom, still radiates hope to those living under suppression.
But it had another effect. It forced the world’s remaining dictators to go on the defensive. They worried that the Arab Spring had planted a moral seed. Their own people might now realize that they, too, deserve to be free and can organize through social media and on the streets to achieve it. A mental self-censorship had been lifted. And the outside world just might help them.
Over the past year, regimes from China to Morocco have cracked down harder on dissent and the Internet, or they have tried to co-opt their people by throwing money at them or making minimal political reforms.
The result, oddly enough, is that there has been less freedom worldwide since the Arab Spring began, according to a report by the think tank Freedom House, which measures such things.
Take China, for example. The report sums up Beijing’s reaction to the events of Cairo’s Tahrir Square as “a near-hysterical campaign of arrests, incommunicado detentions, press censorship, and stepped-up control over the Internet.”
But such overreactions may be hopeful. “The aura of invincibility has been undermined” by the Arab uprising, says Freedom House vice president Arch Puddington. Harsh rulers are being forced to justify their rule, pushing them deeper into a corner, which then might force a final resolution.
Good ideas like freedom have a way of propagating themselves and forcing evil to the surface where it can be more easily lanced. But caution is still needed to prevent new democracies from relapsing.
The European revolutions of 1848 were suppressed, and most of the former Soviet states that were liberated after 1991 are still mostly not free. But those are balanced by the waves of democratization in Latin America and Asia starting in the 1970s, and then in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Fortunately, the Obama administration has shed its initial aversion to promoting democracy – an overreaction to the Bush-era “freedom agenda.” President Obama now sprinkles the word “democracy” in speeches. And a year ago, he finally came around to helping the Egyptians oust Hosni Mubarak and then allowing NATO to remove Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton toured Africa in what was a trip to honor recent strides toward democracy made on the continent. She also made a historic visit to Myanmar (Burma) to support a democratic opening there. In recent months, Mr. Obama’s envoys to Syria, China, and Russia have spoken out or acted forcefully for human rights in those countries, evoking a strong reaction from the regimes.
Of all the West’s “interests” in other countries, from trade to nuclear nonproliferation, none has better served peace and prosperity than the spread of democracy. And the West now can rely on democracies in different regions, such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia, to be partners in furthering a historic trend toward freedom.
One year on, the Arab Spring provides a new opportunity to plant more democracies while also preventing backsliding. The worst regimes are now on notice.