A region in ferment

Arab countries’ fundamental and nearly intractable problem is that in most cases the institutions that form the backbone of democracy do not exist.

Tunisia Riots 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Tunisia Riots 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In a rather prescient speech that has particular resonance as unrest now sweeps the Middle East from Sanaa to Cairo to Beirut, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Arab regimes earlier this month that they would have to initiate democratic reforms before it was “too late.”
Speaking at a conference on democracy in Doha, Qatar, on January 13, days before the Jasmine Revolution ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and inspired similar popular uprisings across the region, Clinton blasted Arab governments for stalled political change.
“Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever,” she predicted. “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.”
Just how tired grew increasingly apparent this week, as protesters across the region – emboldened by the Tunisian precedent, which showed that an assertion of people power could accomplish what once seemed impossible – took to the streets in demonstrations against the abject failure of corrupt authoritarian regimes to meet their citizens’ basic needs.
Rampant unemployment, skyrocketing inflation, a huge young population without much hope for the future, and the denial of elementary human rights – these sparked spontaneous mass gatherings that were impossible to put down, in part because there was no identifiable leadership that could be targeted. The grassroots character of the protests, which incorporate young and old, men and women, middle class and working class, also tends to mitigate against the use of extreme violence on the part of police and security personnel, which add to the chances of success.
IN EGYPT, the much-feared security forces were deployed, Internet was disabled and Al-Jazeera was blacked out. Yet against all odds, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets on Tuesday, in one of the largest non-anti-Western demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history. Then they protested again on Wednesday. And on Thursday.
In Sanaa on Thursday, thousands of Yemenites protested against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s corrupt 30-year regime. In the shadow of the world’s top oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, Yemen is struggling with soaring unemployment and dwindling oil and water reserves. Almost half its 23 million people live on $2 a day or less and a third suffer from chronic hunger.
Popular unrest has also flared in Jordan, Algeria, Libya and even in Saudi Arabia, while in Syria authorities have preemptively banned programs that allow access to Facebook Chat from cellphones, tightening already severe restrictions on the Internet in the wake of the unrest in Tunisia.
In Lebanon, supporters of the 2005 Cedar Revolution, which temporarily ended 30 years of Syrian occupation, protested against Hizbullah’s effective seizure of power. Iran and Syria, acting via their proxy Hizbullah, have imposed Najib Mikati, a business partner of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as prime minister in place of Saad Hariri.
In the short run, the regimes may well manage to survive.
Oil prices are tolerably high, security forces are loyal, foreign aid is available in abundance, elections have been manipulated and Islamists have been repressed. Nor would it necessarily serve the interests of national and regional stability for these authoritarian regimes, many of them allies of America, to be suddenly deposed.
In Tunisia, for instance, it is still unclear what sort of political leadership will fill the vacuum created by Ben Ali’s forced departure. There is a kernel of truth to the Arab dictum that 100 years of tyranny is preferable to one day of chaos, though the ongoing American and European support for “stable” Arab tyrants has now made them accessories of unpopular rulers, further undermining the West’s ability to support constructive change.
There are no shortcuts to the transition from tyranny to Western-style freedom. The overhasty imposition of quasidemocratic elections, without first laying the requisite groundwork, is demonstrably no solution. Hamas’s takeover of Gaza and Hizbullah’s rise to power in Lebanon are bitter proof of that.
Arab countries’ fundamental and, therefore, nearly intractable problem is that in most cases the institutions that form the backbone of democracy – an honest judiciary, a legislature guided by liberal ideals, strict and equal law enforcement and a free press – do not yet exist.
The turmoil sweeping this region seems to vindicate Clinton’s warning that the status quo of authoritarianism is no longer sustainable. But the question remains how to implement Clinton’s advice. Building the durable institutions that are needed to make a peaceful transition to political and economic pluralism, and thus ensuring true freedom and democracy, is not a process that happens overnight.