(photo credit: Courtesy)
Coming on the heels of the Tunisian upheaval, the demonstrations in Egypt and
Yemen have triggered considerable speculation about the prospects for change in
the Middle East. Some have compared today’s conditions with the situation in
1989 when, much to the world’s astonishment, the entire edifice of European
communism collapsed in the face of (with the exception of Romania) nonviolent
There are, of course, parallels between the Soviet satellites
and today’s Arab autocracies. Eastern Europe had endured more than 40 years
under a form of totalitarianism much grimmer than the current environment in
Egypt or Jordan. Furthermore, since none of the communist regimes enjoyed
democratic legitimacy, all had a strong stake in quashing stirrings of popular
resistance in neighboring countries. Like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, the
Erich Honeckers and Nicolae Ceausescus understood that change in one country was
a threat to the rest.
There are also noteworthy differences between
Eastern Europe then and the Middle East now. By the 1980s, dissident movements
existed throughout the communist world, with official tolerance.
dissidents were fortified by the example of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies of
glasnost and perestroika set loose a spirit of freedom that proved
uncontrollable. The satellites also benefited from their proximity to Western
Europe, with its model democracies and prosperity. Before the Wall came down,
Europe was a seductive model; afterward, the European Union was crucial in
solidifying democratic institutions in the former communist
Finally, while Hungary, Poland and East Germany remained under
communist regimentation before 1989, each was moving toward more openness and a
reduced police-state atmosphere.
IN TODAY’S Middle East, unfortunately,
the political trajectory is less benign. The depressing facts are spelled out in
the most recent edition of Freedom in the World, the annual report on global
political rights and civil liberties issued by Freedom House.
assesses the degree of freedom on a series of issues – elections, press freedom,
rule of law, corruption, gender equality and so forth – and then aggregates
countries in categories labeled Free, Partly Free and Not Free.
report’s principal global finding is a steady decline for freedom in the past
five years. But while democracy is under pressure, the degree of decline in most
cases is modest; the gains of the past quarter- century have not been undone.
The number of countries identified as Free stands at 87 – 45 percent of the
total, while fewer than a quarter are ranked as Not Free.
situation in the Middle East is, if anything, worse than during the Cold War.
For 2010, one country, Israel, qualified as Free; three countries – Morocco,
Lebanon and Kuwait – were ranked as Partly Free; and the remaining 13 were
ranked as Not Free. Fully 88 percent of the people in the region live in
countries where honest elections, a free press and the rule of law are unknown.
To make matters worse, conditions have actually worsened; five years ago, the
number of Partly Free countries was six, double the number
Likewise, the Middle East ranks at, or near, the bottom on each of
the indicators that measure a country’s level of freedom. African countries have
more honest elections and greater civil freedoms; the only region whose
political institutions fall in a range similar to the Middle East is the former
Finally, of the 20 countries ruled by “leaders for life,”
five are from the Middle East (the number was six until Ben Ali fled
Many rationales have been advanced to explain the failure of
freedom in the Middle East. But it is worth recalling the reasons once put
forward to explain why other societies were resistant to democracy. For Latin
America, scholars cited the Spanish heritage and American
In Africa, colonialism was blamed for decades of
misrule. In Asia, Confucianism and “Asian values” were said to make ordinary
people wary of democracy’s unpredictable consequences. In Central Europe,
centuries of autocratic rule followed by decades of communist oppression were
said to have left people ill-prepared for self-government.
The fact that
countries like El Salvador, South Korea and Romania overcame legacies of
repression and poverty to attain democratic governance suggests that it would be
a serious mistake to write off prospects for the Arab world. But if their
revolutions are to succeed, Arab democrats must prevail over both a powerful
legacy of autocracy and those forces aligned with the autocrats – the very
people who are hoping for the status quo’s survival – as well as religious
extremists, who likewise disdain a democratic path.
The triumph of 1989
derived from courageous people on the streets of Warsaw and Prague, supported by
allies in Europe and the US. Arab reformers will need the solidarity of those
same allies if their vision of societies where freedom and justice hold sway is
to be fulfilled.The writer is director of research at Freedom House.