Democracy after the Arab spring: a lumper’s perspective

Was Francis Fukuyama right after all about the ‘end of history’, and the triumph of liberal democracy? Half a year on from the revolutions that the world came to call the Arab spring, the lumper in me is still trying to discern how these tumultous events, in what is proving to be a busy 2011, fit into our larger narratives about democracy past and future.

A series of recent articles helps to disentangle some of the issues here and place them in some bigger context. Is 2011 like 1991?  Two different takes both draw on the surprise that the rest of the world viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arab spring, with requisite lessons for the future.

Susan Glasser at Foreign Policy considers the past two decades of post-Soviet Russia, summed up in a simple, yet complex sentence: “Where revolutions start is not always where they end up. ” Strongman politics, an economy built around resource-extraction, an assertive foreign policy have made Russia in 2011 a rather different place from the democratic, Western-friendly Russia anticipated with the end of the USSR.

In a piece written in February, Mary Kaldor from the LSE points to the emergence of a civil society in Egypt and Tunisia – which like in the Soviet republics, was underappreciated and appeared largely invisible to outsiders:

“What we are seeing in Tunisia and Egypt and across the Middle East is the power of civil society. The people in the streets are proving that western orientalist attitudes, the arguments of western governments about Arab exceptionalism, are simply wrong…Those of us who were engaged with opposition groups in Central and Eastern Europe expected something to happen although we did not know how or why. The same is true in Egypt. The youth groups who have coordinated the protests have not sprung from nowhere.”

Her warning, however, is that in the wake of revolution, economic liberalisation instead reversed the democratic gains of the east European revolutions, and could do the same in Egypt and Tunisia. None of these societies operate in isolation, and how the character of their interactions with Western countries change as a result of their revolutions sets the parameters for what comes next:

“Despite their failure to predict the 1989 revolutions, those same western governments assumed that that they knew best how to manage the transition to democracy. They imposed a neo-liberal formula of privatisation, budget cuts, and liberalisation. Former communist elites were able to exchange their political positions for material wealth while the majority came to associate democracy with deprivation and inequality – ‘we got banks instead of tanks’ said young Hungarians.”

Finally, a recent Economist issue considers the trajectory that the combination of Islam and democracy seem to be taking.

“With every year that has passed since al-Qaeda’s attacks on America in September 2001, it has become more fashionable to argue that something about Islam makes it hard to reconcile with full-blown liberal democracy—in the sense of a political system where all citizens have an equal right to vote, and are equal in other basic ways. And with equal vehemence, Muslims have retorted: there is nothing in their faith which precludes a liberal democracy, and much which works in its favour…

“In most understandings of liberal democracy, penal and civil codes are a matter for the people’s freely elected representatives to decide, within the confines of a humanly drafted constitution. How can that possibly be reconciled with the notion that such questions have been settled for ever by divine revelation?”

In the wake of the Arab spring – and the still-violent situations in Libya and Syria – our narratives about democracy face a reconfigured future. Are these societies actually on the road to lasting democracy? What will the impact of post-revolution Western involvement be? And how will these societies navigate their way between liberal democracy and political Islam? What was it again that Zhou Enlai supposedly said about the French Revolution? “It’s too soon to judge”.

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