Keeping Alive the Spirit of Tahrir Square

Editor’s Note: Stephen Grand examines the state of democratic change in the Middle East that started with the Arab Spring in the context of historical, global trends as the 

2014 U.S.-Islamic World Forum

draws to an end. Grand is the author of the new book
Understanding Tahrir Square: What Transitions Elsewhere Can Teach Us About the Prospects for Arab Democracy
, from which parts of this article are drawn.

It is a hard time to be an optimist about the Arab Spring. What started with the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor and rapidly mushroomed into massive public demonstrations across the Arab world now seems to have degenerated into violence and instability.

Syria has been torn asunder by civil war. More than two years after its own civil war, Libya still grapples with lawlessness. Al Qaeda remains a forceful presence in Yemen, as do secessionist movements in its south. And now elections in Egypt have made the former head of the country’s armed forces, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, its new president: reinforcing the impression that events in the most populous Arab country have come full circle.

But it would be premature to conclude that the Arab Spring has run its course and to declare the region’s brief experiment with democracy over. What the recent history of democratization in other regions of the world shows is that it is almost always a lengthy process, full of unexpected advances and heartbreaking reversals.

It is far easier to mobilize citizens to unseat a despotic regime than to construct a liberal democratic order in its place—one is an act of destruction, the other an act of construction. As one analyst aptly put it: “You can tweet a revolution, but you can’t tweet a transition.” Getting from that initial democratic breakthrough to consolidated liberal democracy takes time. From casting aside the old autocratic regime to creating a new one where not only are free and fair elections convened on a regularized basis, but individual citizen’s rights and freedoms are safeguarded and the rule of law is upheld, can be the work of decades, if not generations.

The Arab world, though, is not the first region to democratize but the last. From the mid-1970s to the end of the 20th century, during what is often referred to as the third wave of democratization, some 90 countries from every other region of the world embarked upon transitions to democracy. Most eventually succeeded in becoming at least electoral democracies; nearly half became liberal democracies.

The third wave brought a striking shift in the way many states were governed. Consider that when Freedom House conducted its first annual survey of freedom around the world in 1972, it categorized just 44 of 155 countries, or a little more than a quarter, as “free.” By century’s end, 85 of 192 countries, or nearly half, earned that distinction. Whereas in 1972 almost half the planet lived under the grip of totalitarianism, today North Korea and possibly Cuba are the only remaining totalitarian states. There are no empires. And, with the notable exceptions of tiny Brunei and Swaziland, there are no ruling monarchies left outside the Arab Middle East.

Undergirding the political changes of the third wave were important shifts in ordinary citizens’ attitudes toward political authority. As a result of modernization and globalization, people have become far less deferential to authority, whether earthly or ecclesiastical.

Citizens are becoming more empowered as they achieve higher levels of education and—thanks to the proliferation of new communications technologies—have greater access to information. More than at any time in history, citizens are able to compare their lot with that of other societies. As a consequence, as former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has observed, the world is experiencing a “global political awakening” centered on issues of human dignity.

As the Arab Spring made evident, the same attitudinal shifts that have been witnessed elsewhere are now underway in the Arab Middle East. The youth of Tahrir Square, it quickly became clear, have different values and are far more empowered than their parents.

Yet, at least in Egypt, this new civic energy has yet to yield democracy. The Tahrir youth have taken to the streets now three times, and each time they have gotten an outcome far different than that which they sought. They demonstrated in January 2011 against the authoritarianism of Hosni Mubarak, only to get a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces-led interim government in his place. Soon they were back on the streets protesting the excesses of the SCAF, only to have the Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate Mohamed Morsi elected as president in June 2012. Morsi’s incompetent leadership and his tendency to exceed his constitutional authority led to even more massive protests in June 2013, which once more brought not democracy but a military coup.

None of this should seem surprising. Power that has long been centralized is very difficult to decentralize. Yet the very essence of democratization is about shifting the locus of power from the ruler closer toward the ruled, where sovereignty in a democracy is supposed ultimately to lie.

But, true to human nature, political leaders rarely cede power willingly. Separating, limiting, and delegating authority in ways conducive to democracy will require a lengthy political struggle between rulers and ruled over their respective prerogatives.

During the third wave, the countries that were most successful in making the transition toward liberal democracy tended to be those where an effective political constituency for democracy emerged—where citizens came together to push their elected leaders to abide by the new democratic rules of the game.

You can see the beginnings of such a constituency for democracy emerging in several countries of the Arab Spring, most notably Tunisia and Egypt. It will take time to grow, mature, and begin to have an impact upon politics. But, under the right conditions, it’s not far-fetched to imagine democracy eventually developing in many—though not necessarily all—of the countries of the Arab world.

For the United States and other countries wishing to support democratic change in the region, the challenges are threefold:

  1. To help tamp down the political violence and societal polarization that have roiled the region so that democratic politics has a chance to take root.
  2. To help speed the kind of value changes that have brought into being the Tahrir generation, through creative use of social and traditional media and professional and educational exchanges.
  3. To help democratic activists in the region better organize and expand upon their Tahrir base, so that they begin to be effective players in the region’s politics.

Only then will the spirit of Tahrir prevail.