A Domino Effect of Democracy?

The developing crisis in Africa highlights the political complexity of the region

Egyptian protesters clash with police this week in an effort to pressure President Hosni Mubarak to step down, but the US has conveyed mixed messages about the regime.
Egyptian protesters clash with police this week in an effort to pressure President Hosni Mubarak to step down, but the US has conveyed mixed messages about the regime.

"Perhaps the Saudis will have to build a whole village for Arab presidents once they run out of villas.” According to Al Jazeera, that’s how a taxi driver in Syria half-jokingly referred to the events unfolding in North Africa.

People watching the developments in the Middle East are hoping for a domino effect of democratization starting in Tunisia and cascading across the region.

In the last week alone, Tunisia’s President Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia as Tunisians have taken to the streets en masse; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has appointed a Vice-President, sent his family to London, and banned the Arabic news network, Al Jazeera; hundreds of Algerians have been arrested for demonstrating against the government in Algiers; and Jordanians have demanded the resignation of their Prime Minister, shouting “send the corrupt guys to court.”

What’s happening in the region is truly remarkable, but don’t get your hopes up yet.

Revolutionary fervour resulting in a re-invigorated status-quo or an exacerbated form of authoritarianism has been commonplace in both the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Few people today remember the events of 1952 in Egypt, 1979 in Iran or 1989 in the former Soviet bloc.

The first revolution was an overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy led by the Free Officers and the soon-to-be strongman of the Middle East, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The establishment of a republican government in Egypt sparked a revolution in Iraq in 1958, but both of these revolutions replaced a dictator in a crown with a dictator in a military uniform.

Fortunately for Egyptians bearing the current crisis, the military seems to be on the side of the people.

In the case of Iran, a hopeful public revolted against a Western-backed dictator only to have their revolution hijacked by the equally dictatorial and nefarious Ayatollah Khomeini. Unlike the Shah, this man received his mandate not from American dollar bills but from Allah.

A military takeover of the government or the establishment of Islamist ‘democracy’ are both possible outcomes to the current situation.

What seems most likely to happen, if a domino effect of revolutions is in the works, is a 1989-style cascade of reforms, metastasizing from one country to the next but culminating in unequal and disparate results similar to the new states formed out of the old Soviet Union.

As the journalist Robert Kaplan has suggested, some countries in the Middle East may take a relatively pain-free path to democracy and capitalism the way Poland and Hungary did.

Others may descend into periodic anarchy the way Albania did. Others still may be engulfed in a Yugoslavia-style civil war.

Of course, the outcome of the current protests is as dependent on a single external factor as it is on internal ones: the position of the United States.

Fortunately for democracy-spreaders, idealists and liberals everywhere, the rhetoric of the Obama Administration has shifted from tacit support to hints of opposition toward the ancien régime.

On Thursday, Jan. 27, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for both sides to “show restraint”—a euphemistic way of not supporting the protestors.

By Friday, the American President and Vice President cautioned against violence while lauding Hosni Mubarak as a strong US ally and an anchor of stability in the region. By Sunday, Jan. 30, the US was calling for an “orderly transition.”

It would be naïve to think the United States will immediately pull the plug on Mubarak and the $1.5 billion of US taxpayer dollars the dictator receives (although Vice-President Biden said he “would not refer to him as a dictator”).

What makes a Mubarak step-down possibly acceptable for Washington is the fact that the opposition leader, Mohamad Elbaradei, is a moderate reformist who holds degrees from Geneva and NYU.

On the other hand, the United States would not let anything happen to the pro-American leadership of Jordan under King Abdullah or the Saudi royal family who sit on billions of dollars of oil wealth.

However, all hope is not lost. The regimes themselves will have to respond to their people through reforms which will most likely be piecemeal but progressive— something that is already taking place in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Democracy, if it will ever come to the Middle East, will come organically from within. However, the United States will have to materially support the protestors and not the dictators suppressing them.

It is an idealistic goal to have, but the moral compass of the United States has pointed toward democracy in the past.

Perhaps most telling about these protests is what they are, not what they’re about. From Tunisia to Jordan, no one is revolting because of the Israeli occupation of Palestine—this coming a week after Al Jazeera released the “Palestine Papers.” This is a direct rebuke of the claim that all the problems of the Middle East point toward Israel.

No one is revolting because of anti-Americanism. This is a direct rebuke of the thesis that anti-Americanism reigns supreme across the region and is, by itself, a motivating factor for mass protests.

In fact, Tunisians and Egyptians are demanding economic and political rights—that is, the right to participate in an open market economy not at the whim of a despot—coupled with the right to have a say in who will rule the country. In other words, they’re protesting for what we in the West already have.

Furthermore, no one is revolting in favour of Islamism or anything that al Qaeda advocates. Even the Muslim Brotherhood was quiet during the early stages of the Egyptian revolution and intellectuals readily dismiss the prospect of these protests moving in an Islamist direction.

We should be proud of Tunisians and Egyptians for rising up. At the same time, we should temper our excitement and idealism with a dose of caution and realism. Remember, the only revolution in modern history that produced the desired outcome was the American one.

Time will tell whether 2011 replicates the years 1952, 1978 or 1989.

Let’s hope the Saudis have enough extra retirement homes for these despots.

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