Arab democracy rising: international lessons

The popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the middle east are driven by a profound democratic impulse. This represents both learning and test for international democracy actors, says Vidar Helgesen.

A comment by Tony Blair epitomises the somewhat hesitant response of the international community to the democratic uprising in Egypt: "[You] cannot be sure what type of change will be produced there", said Britain's former prime minister. True. If democracy is allowed to run its course, you cannot be sure. This is the beauty of democracy, of allowing citizens to freely elect their leaders.

Democracy is not the certain outcome of current events, even after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak from Egypt’s presidency on 11 February 2011 and the military council’s subsequent pledge to chart a path towards elections within six months. But the desire for democracy is certainly the driving force for millions of people in Egypt, and beyond.

The triggers of the revolt included social tensions - in particular, mass unemployment among young people. But the causes are deeper, and political. This always meant that the kinds of top-down measures offered by President Mubarak at the height of the protest - a cabinet reshuffle, concessions on food prices or public-sector salaries, the appointment of a vice-president - would not make the uprising go away. Mubarak’s counterpart in Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, somehow did grasp that message quickly enough to flee.

The Egyptian regime’s belated and half-hearted response was further discredited by its forces’ violence against peaceful demonstrators. In the event, its reaction to citizens’ demands only intensified their protest, and ensured that the Egyptian events would continue to have varying spillover effects across the region -  in Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, and elsewhere.

A new awakening

Both the world and the Arab region are changing and, in tandem with these changes, the demand for democracy appears to be returning with renewed vitality. Twenty-two years after the fall of the Berlin wall, seventeen years after the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, thirteen years after the democratic reform in Indonesia, the democracy wave of 2011 is engulfing the Arab (and Iranian) world.

This time, moreover, democracy in the region doesn't come at the point of foreign guns or as a by-product of other agendas. The seeds are unequivocally and genuinely homegrown. Men and women are simply determined to take their future in their own hands. They want to be represented and have a say in the way their country is governed.

Their agenda is domestic, yet at the same time they are teaching the international community four lessons:

* The marginal role democracy has played in international relations in the last decade has not made democracy less central to citizens' aspirations around the world. The democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt took the world by surprise: again, democracy defies predictions

* In the new, multipolar world, democracy too is becoming truly global. It can no longer be dismissed as a European or western cultural export. There are twice as many people living under democracy in the global south as the populations of Europe and north America together

* The capacity of new media to spread information, raise awareness and mobilise politically has by far exceeded the capacity of authoritarian governments to insulate their citizens from regional and global trends. The multiple social networks are like water-streams in a field; they always find alternative paths and create new ones, often in real time

* In the turbulent Arab region, the alibi of authoritarian regimes as self-appointed guarantors of regional security and stability is no longer convincing and credible; hence, it should no longer be taken at face value by other influential international actors.

A long process

The building of democracy in the Arab region will take time. Democracy, as has been discovered in earlier transitions, is not something found in the pot when the heavy lid of authoritarian government is lifted. While democracy is the best guarantor of stability in the long run, the process of democratisation is often destabilising: after all, it is about changing power relations in society. Yet those who are (rightly) concerned about the danger of instability and conflict in the middle east should also realise that by now, it is delaying democratic change which holds the greater risk.

The citizens of Tunisia, Egypt and other countries of the region have a long way to go. Mass protest can overthrow a dictatorship, but cannot build democracy. The changes required for this to happen are extensive and deep-rooted: in constitutions, electoral systems, laws and regulations related to political parties, the media, the justice system, and not least, in people's minds; a fundamental shift is also needed in the place of women in the region’s political life.

The citizens of Arab countries are entitled to expect from the international community, empathy, encouragement and a willingness to share knowledge and experience. But this is not a time for any form or attitude of guidance, and the international approach of supporting particular leaders from the outside - so often tried, tested and failed - should be abandoned. Any request to external actors to support democracy should be met with respect; but allowing democratic change to run its course will be more successful than replicating past efforts at engineering societal change from a distance.

A rich body of information and understanding does exist about many aspects of democracy-building. A rich fund of lessons learned, both positive and negative, is also broadly available. The new actors emerging on the political stage in the Arab region should have smooth and easy access to that knowledge.

International IDEA for its part has a wealth of globally-ranging comparative knowledge on democracy-building, which may be useful as a starting-point in addressing such matters as constitutional change, electoral reform, political dialogue, women's political empowerment, and tools for citizens to assess and improve the state of their democracy.

Such resources underpin International IDEA’s readiness to be a partner in the long-term process of building sustainable democracy in the region. The way this process evolves, as the citizens of the region create their own democratic future, will surely offer more learnings and tests for the international community.

About the author

Vidar Helgesen is secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). He formerly served as special advisor to the president of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva (1998-2001), and as deputy minister of foreign affairs of Norway (2001-05) 

Read On

International IDEA

Tarek Osman, Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)

Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)

John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Democracy Digest

Philip Stephens, "History is on the side of democracy" (Financial Times, 21 January 2011)

Bruce K Rutherford, Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam and Democracy in the Arab World (Princeton University Press, 2008)

More On

Vidar Helgesen is secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)

Also by Vidar Helgesen in openDemocracy:

"Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

"The future of democracy (-support)" (15 September 2009)

This article is also published on the website of International IDEA