Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Brave new chapter for the Arab world

THE jury is still out. But whatever the outcome, the 'Jasmine Revolution' in Tunisia and the uprisings in Egypt have already written a chapter of history. They have sent shivers of fear down the spines of many rulers in the Arab world and beyond.

Many Arab regimes dwell on a fading post-colonial legitimacy or on their role as the only reliable bulwark against Islamism. Some have drifted towards a model of a rentier state, rife with crony capitalism. They seek to perpetuate their grip on power through 'dynastic' successions. This model can only thrive under the conditions of a police state.

What is amazing is that the model has not come under fire earlier. But the events since mid-December portend powerful trends in the Arab world.

One is the compelling role that information and communication technologies have played in propagating the outcry in Tunisia and Egypt. Without doubt this is being closely monitored in China.

Another lesson pertains to the spell that freedom and democracy can cast on peoples still deprived of them. To set this trend in historical perspective, we must recall June 4, 1989 - that pivotal Sunday when the Poles voted the communists out of power and, at the other end of Eurasia, the Chinese Communist Party crushed a blossoming democratic movement on Tiananmen Square.

In retrospect, that day looks like a fork in the road of history. One path led to the demise of communism and a new birth of freedom and democracy; the other traced another course, with China remaining under the grip of its ruling party but delivering prosperity to its impoverished masses.

As the revolutionary year of 1989 unfolded, Francis Fukuyama pondered whether the path chosen in Europe heralded the 'end of history'. But while a widespread consensus continued to hold that communism was a dead end, China's economic success, and the authoritarian backlash in Russia, prompted a more pessimistic analysis. Theories of 'democratic rollback' and of a resurgence of 'authoritarian great powers' surfaced.

Some argued that authoritarian rule provided a surer and safer path to welfare than democracy. Others extolled the virtues of 'Asian values', and still others warned that democracy in the Arab/Muslim world would pave the way for Islamic fundamentalists to take power. Not surprisingly, autocrats everywhere embraced such views.

But the message of the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt is clear: democracy - and the liberal political order in which it is rooted - is not merely a Western concept, but holds universal attraction. Moreover, it can be accessed at an early stage of a country's modernisation.

To be sure, authoritarian rule can manage the early stages of industrialisation. But a 'knowledge economy' cannot operate with muzzled minds. Even the smartest authoritarian rulers are unable to manage its complexity - not to mention the corruption that inevitably breeds in the protected shadows of autocracy.

Challenging the 'myth of the autocratic revival', American political scientists Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry have examined China and Russia, finding 'little evidence for the emergence of a stable equilibrium between capitalism and autocracy such that this combination could be dignified as a new model of modernity'.

While neither country qualifies as a liberal democracy, both 'are much more liberal and democratic than they have ever been, and many of the crucial foundations for sustainable liberal democracy are emerging'.

Many countries have, quietly or spectacularly, rallied to the liberal order in recent decades. South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia have done so without being hampered by their 'Asian values'. Similarly, Latin America, once the playground of myriad juntas, is now largely anchored in political liberalism. Turkey is ruled by a mildly Islamist party that plays by the rules of democracy.

The paths differ. Islamism is definitely a risk in Muslim countries; setbacks are not uncommon. It can take decades, but the leap to democracy occurs when the circumstances are ripe - as we are witnessing today.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt embody all the tenets of a liberal political order: a yearning for freedom, opportunity and the rule of law. Whatever the final outcome, those who believe that democracy, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, makes the world a safe place have every reason to rejoice at this development.

By Pierre Buhler

The writer, a former French ambassador to Singapore, was an associate professor at Sciences Po, Paris.