Think Again: Arab Democracy

One of the world’s foremost experts on democracy building debunks the myths surrounding the Arab world’s new governments — and wonders what sort of role the West should play.

“The Berlin Wall Has Fallen in the Arab World.”

Yes and no. It’s tempting to compare the astonishing wave of political upheaval in the Arab world to the equally dramatic wave of political change that swept Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. In the Middle East today, as in 1989, extraordinary numbers of ordinary people are courageously and for the most part nonviolently demanding a better future for themselves and their children. The wave broke just as suddenly and was almost entirely unpredicted by experts both inside and outside the region. And the process of cross-country contagion — the political sparks jumping across borders almost instantaneously — has also been strikingly reminiscent of Central and Eastern Europe in that fateful year.

Yet the 1989 analogy is misleading in at least two major ways. First, the communist governments of Central and Eastern Europe had been imposed from the outside and maintained in place by the Soviet Union’s guarantee — the very real threat of tanks arriving to put down any serious insurrection. When Soviet power began to crumble in the late 1980s, this guarantee turned paper thin and the regimes were suddenly deeply vulnerable to any hard push from inside.

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