The legacy of Arab autocracy

There are some strong parallels between the Soviet satellites and today’s Arab regimes, but the current situation in the ME is worse than during the Cold War.

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 opposition.
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.
And the 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 world.
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.
The report 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.
The 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.
But the 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 today.
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 Soviet Union.
Finally, of the 20 countries ruled by “leaders for life,” five are from the Middle East (the number was six until Ben Ali fled Tunisia).
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 interventionism.
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.