Understanding Tahrir Square Within the “Fourth Wave” of Democratization

Editor’s Note: On April 23, 2014, the Brookings Institution hosted a book launch marking the release of Understanding Tahrir Square: What Transitions Elsewhere Can Teach Us about the Prospects for Arab Democracy, a new book by Stephen Grand, Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Understanding Tahrir Square draws lessons for the countries of the Arab spring from the transitional democratization experiences of countries around the globe. Grand was joined by Jackson Diehl, Deputy Editorial Page Editor of the Washington Post, who moderated the discussion. Audio of the event can be found here.


After Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director of the Saban Center, launched the event with welcoming remarks, Grand discussed how citizens of the Arab world feel there is a great distance between the moment of political breakthrough and the point at which they consolidate liberal democracy—a democracy which upholds basic human rights, freedoms, and rule of law.

In Understanding Tahrir Square, Grand draws lessons from the experiences of countries that embarked on their transition  to democracy during the “third wave” of democratization, which includes numerous case studies from the former Eastern Bloc, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Muslim-majority countries in Asia. Grand argues that the trials of the Arab Spring are neither new nor unique.

Grand provides three take-always from his extensive research: first, under the right conditions, many Arab countries could become democratic over time; secondly, the global trend towards democratization is a solid one which will continue; and thirdly, making democracy work is a lengthy process that needs political demand from the people.

Also discussed was the tremendous amount of civic energy present throughout countries of the Arab Spring, and how the challenge at hand is transforming that civic energy into concrete political change in which citizens are satisfied. What is missing, he argues, is “time, experience, and organization,” in order for true democracy to successfully materialize. He emphasized that the decisive factor between successful and failed transitions to democracy is people power and while elites play a role in that transition, it is that bottom-up pressure from below that will lead to true change.

When asked about policy recommendations for the United States, Grand argues that “this is a moment in the Middle East where the United States needs to lead on imaginative and thoughtful change,” and called on the U.S. to engage in new, more sophisticated methods to support activists in the Arab world.

Grand was also asked how his research related to Iran and Saudi Arabia, whom Grand labeled as the two main regional powers. According to Grand countries similar to Iran, which have highly educated populations, as well as a great deal of contact with the outside world, are best positioned for democratic transitions, as opposed to countries such as Saudi Arabia which are less ripe for change.