By Dr. Nayyer Ali

February 25 , 2011

The Arabs and Democracy


The Arab world continues its remarkable upheaval. After Wikileaks set off the Tunisian citizenry in a lightning-quick revolution that threw out their decades-long dictator the contagion rapidly spread to the very heart of the Arab world, and in 18 remarkable days the regime of Hosni Mubarak collapsed. The revolutionary virus has spread further, with demonstrators marching from Morocco to Bahrain, in many cases facing hostile and deadly regimes willing to fire on their own people to hold power. On the other hand, for the last decade, we have been told that Islam and democracy are incompatible, that Muslims don’t want democracy, and that Arabs in particular are culturally unsuited to it.

In fact, What is going on in the Arab world is just part of a 40-year wave of democratic change sweeping across the globe, driven primarily by the rise of large middle-classes in country after country. The argument that democracy is unsuited to Arabs or Muslims for cultural or religious reasons was also made in the past about Latin America, East Asia, and other regions. But those views turned out to be false in every case.

The earliest democracies were the US followed by the British, Scandinavia, and Switzerland. France became democratic only in 1871, following defeat by Prussia in war. Germany’s first attempt at democracy failed after World War I as Weimar gave way to Hitler. Most of Europe was autocratic on the eve of World War II. Postwar democracy took hold in West Germany, Italy, and Japan, but was then stalled for several decades. In the early 1970’s almost all of Latin America was run as military dictatorships, as were Greece and Spain. Eastern Europe was communist ruled. No one could have predicted then that democracy would start to run the table, but Greece and Spain flipped in the mid-70s. In the 1980s most of Latin America became democratic, and in the later 80’s East Asian countries such as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea democratized. In the 90s Eastern Europe became democratic, as did the newly independent Baltic States in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.

In the last 10-12 years democracy spread to the non-Arab Muslim world, becoming entrenched in Indonesia and Malaysia, struggling in Bangladesh, and seeing the rise of real civilian democratic control in Turkey. Pakistan had a fair election in 2008 and returned to democracy. Now we are seeing the wave enter the Arab world, and it is truly a great moment in world history. The genie is out of the bottle, and this wave will not end till the whole Arab world is affected by it. The days of kings and dictators are over, though many may hold on through brute force for many years to come. But the legitimacy of that system has been dealt a fatal blow, and it cannot recover.

So the question becomes, why now? Why did this happen in 2011 and not 2001 or 1991? Clearly, a confluence of social and technological factors have played a huge role. The enabling effects of social media have been widely reported on. The power of Arab satellite channels, particularly Al-Jazeera, must be recognized. The steady growth of an educated middle-class also created a critical mass of citizens that demanded their right to be treated with respect and dignity and to have a say over the government that rules them. The example of the rest of the world cannot be ignored, and for the Arab Muslims, the very powerful example of the prosperous, thriving, Turkish state and democracy should not be underestimated. Turkey seems to have figured out how to be democratic, modern, and Muslim, suggesting that those elements can coexist.

For the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt, and for those other nations that make the leap into the future, the most important decisions will be about their new constitutions. They must rewrite these basic documents to ensure a separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and the equality of all citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim, Sunni and Shia, devout and secular, men and women, before the law. If they get that part right, then democracy will fix any other mistakes they make. Comments can reach me at


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