The Arab Revolts: A Fourth Wave or an Ebbing Tide?

The John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture

Delivered by Carl Gershman, President, the National Endowment for Democracy
New York University Law School

I want to thank Noel Lateef and Bob Miller for their leadership in organizing this lecture. And I especially want to pay tribute to John Brademas, who is a great public servant. John mentioned in his introductory remarks that he left Congress following his defeat in the Reagan landslide of 1980. Had he not lost that year, he would have become the Speaker of the House and the third-ranking political leader in the United States. I saw what an effective leader John was when he chaired the NED Board and helped us solidify our bi-partisan support in Congress. I’m forever grateful to him for his leadership and dedication to NED’s democratic mission.

I was probably being too clever by half a few months back when I asked Bob and Noel, only half facetiously, if they’d like me to use the occasion of a second Hurford Lecture to critique my first. That lecture, let us recall, was given on March 1, 2011, in the immediate aftermath of the extraordinary protests that led to the flight of President Ben Ali from Tunisia and the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. It was a very heady time, and the fact that these successful uprisings had occurred in the Arab Middle East, the one region of the world that had been untouched by the Third Wave of democratization, raised the obvious question of whether they might signal the start of a new wave of democratization — a Fourth Wave — after the democratic setbacks and autocratic assertiveness that had occurred during the previous five years – a period that some had called a democratic recession. The picture doesn’t look as bright now.

Let me say at the outset that my remarks were hopeful but qualified. I said that a new opening for democratic progress depended upon the success of the transitions that were then only beginning to unfold in Tunisia and Egypt, and that many very difficult challenges lay ahead. And I also said that the Middle East protests had raised alarms in autocratic capitals around the world, with the result that “the struggle for freedom in authoritarian countries will be more, not less, difficult in the period ahead.” Still, my tone was decidedly optimistic, and I concede that it did not anticipate the gathering storm of reaction and resistance to change that was about to burst out in the region, taking people as much by surprise as had the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Just a few days after I gave my Hurford Lecture, a group of Arab intellectuals, politicians and activists assembled in Doha at the Al Jazeera Forum “to talk about the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the changes sweeping the region,” according to the blogger and Middle East specialist Marc Lynch. The mood there, he said, was “celebratory and electric,” – far more so, I would imagine, than the tone of my Hurford remarks, even though atrocities had already been reported in Libya as Gaddafi’s forces were moving on Benghazi and making menacing threats.

But then, in the week following March 12, the other shoe fell – the empire of unyielding and determined Arab autocracy struck back in one country after another. As recounted by Lynch in his blog on the anniversary of the Doha meeting, in that one week, the following happened:

  • In Bahrain, the hardline elements in the regime, egged on and supported by Saudi Arabia, launched “a scorched-earth campaign” of torture and repression against the opposition that was subsequently documented in the report released last November of the Independent Commission of Inquiry chaired by the jurist Cherif Bassouni. The Bahrain crackdown also unleashed the passions of sectarianism in the region, as the Sunni regime charged that the opposition consisted of Shi’a agents of the Iranian regime, even though it was a movement of civic and human rights activists that included Sunnis among its numbers and that had much more in common with the Green opposition movement in Iran than with the Islamic dictatorship.
  • In Saudi Arabia itself, the regime used repression and a massive public spending campaign totaling some $130 billion – equal to the government’s total annual budget as recently as 2007 – to buy off the opposition and thwart a “day of rage’ protest that had been called for March 11.
  • That same week the UN approved the no-fly zone for Libya and the NATO intervention began, essential steps for preventing slaughter by Gaddafi’s forces and defending the uprising, but also signaling a shift from the period of popular, peaceful uprisings to a darker phase dominated by images of violent repression, war and conflict.
  • Also that week the following occurred: Snipers opened fire on peaceful protesters in Yemen’s Sana’a University, triggering a split in the military and the regime that led to months of political stalemate, violence and repression, and negotiations that largely shut out the civic opposition; Egyptians voted in favor of constitutional amendments favored by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which now claimed a popular mandate to manage the transition against the wishes of many of the Tahrir Square activists; and popular protests broke out in Syria, leading to the regime’s repressive response that has since led to more than 9,000 deaths and brought the country to the brink of civil war.

In short, just days after my Hurford Lecture, momentous events occurred that initiated a much more violent, repressive, and darker period in the Middle East. These events were followed by continuing turmoil in Egypt and the overwhelming triumph of the Islamists in last November’s parliamentary elections, leading many people to conclude not only that the democratic revolution had been aborted but that the most important country in the region was turning strategically against American interests and values.

The subsequent crackdown on U.S. and European democracy assistance organizations working in Egypt, including the NED’s two party institutes (NDI and IRI) and Freedom House, and the prosecution of Egyptian democracy and human rights activists, reinforced this negative view about the consequences of the Arab uprisings. Tom Friedman summarized the conventional wisdom when he wrote two months ago that “The Arab/Muslim awakening phase is over. Now we are deep into the counter-revolutionary phase, as the dead hands of the past try to strangle the future.”

I can understand why some people have reached this conclusion, but I think it’s short-sighted and misses the larger picture, which is that we are just now at the beginning of what will inevitably be a long and difficult process of historical transformation in a region that has never known democracy. It’s true that there has been a counter-revolution, but there’s nothing surprising about that, since deeply entrenched ruling groups and political forces will inevitably want to retain complete power along with control of the society’s economic resources.

But what is extraordinary about the Arab uprisings is how much progress has already been made. In just a little more than a year, four dictators have fallen in the Middle East – Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen in addition to Ben Ali and Mubarak — who had been in power for a combined total of 128 years.

What is also important is that the struggles now taking place in the Middle East are unfolding within distinct countries. One doesn’t hear talk of pan-Arabism or Arab socialism, ideologies that in the past have diverted people from demanding changes in political institutions and processes that would enable them to hold government accountable to the people who live there – the citizens. The Moroccan philosopher Abdou Filali-Ansary has pointed to the decline in the Middle East of what Seymour Martin Lipset called “Weltanschauung politics,” meaning total ideologies projected by movements seeking to transform society based on an abstract utopian vision. In the West during the last century, ideologies of this kind — fascism and communism – had great influence, and in the Arab world they have taken the form of malignant nationalist regimes, Baathist in particular, and what Filali-Ansari calls extremism “arising from the unleashing of tribal or ultratraditionalist forces.”

But such politics is now receding in the region, and it is being replaced by people wanting to have their say in how they are governed. The Jordanian journalist Rami Khouri has written that the return of thousands of Egyptians to the streets last summer to challenge their government represented nothing less than “the birth of the Arab citizen,” meaning that people were expressing their views, fighting for their rights, demanding to participate in the political process, and holding their government accountable. They were becoming citizens, in other words, in a way that had never happened before in the Arab Middle East, taking responsibility for their own lives and futures, and not looking to blame someone else for their problems.

This process, of course, can be derailed and hijacked by anti-democratic forces. This can happen anywhere – one just has to look at several countries in our own hemisphere. But so far this hasn’t happened in the two key transitional countries, Tunisia and Egypt, which were the main subject of my remarks last year. The Tunisian case is especially important because this is where the Arab uprisings began, and it is also the country that has the best chance to become the first consolidated Arab democracy.

Alfred Stepan, the Columbia University political scientist who is a the leading specialist on democratic transition, last December called Tunisia “the Arab Spring’s first completed democratic transition.” He was responding to the assertion by the French journalist Jean Daniel that the victory of the Islamist Ennahda party in last October’s election for a constituent assembly amounted to a “counter-revolution.” Stepan argued in response that the four requirements for a successful transition had been fulfilled in Tunisia – an agreement on the basic rules and procedures; a government elected by a free and popular vote; a government thus elected that has the authority to generate new policies; and one that, in addition, does not have to share power with other unelected bodies such as the military or a religious power.

In an article in the current issue of NED’s Journal of Democracy, Stepan discusses the prospect for Tunisia to consolidate a new democracy. In his view the Ennahda party has embraced what he calls the “twin tolerations” – the toleration of religious citizens toward the state, and the toleration of the state toward religious citizens. He feels that Tunisia is well on the way to institutionalizing these twin tolerations, with the Ennahda embracing the concept of a civic – as opposed to a religious – state, and the party also announcing that the new constitution will retain the first article of the 1959 version and not call for Sharia (Islamic law) to be the source of all legislation.

Though the democratic transition in Tunisia must deal with a severe economic crisis and continuing sharp differences between conflicting secular and Islamist forces, it has already made considerable progress. The election of a constituent assembly used a proportional representation electoral system that guaranteed inclusiveness; the decision to defer the drafting of a constitution until such a body was established was itself reassuring; agreeing on the goal of male-female parity in candidates signaled a commitment to women’s rights in the new system; allowing all but the top leaders of Ben Ali’s official party (which was barred from the election) to form new parties showed a commitment to achieve reconciliation; and the creation of Tunisia’s first independent electoral commission was a major step forward, as was inviting international observers to monitor the process. Stepan called the commission that oversaw this whole process, chaired by attorney Yadh Ben Achour, “one of the most effective consensus-building bodies in the history of ‘crafted’ democratic transitions. And the subsequent formation of a “troika” government, in which Ennahda formed a coalition with two secular parties, was a further step in the direction of democratic consolidation.

Of all the countries in the Middle East, Tunisia has the best chance to build a stable democracy, and it should be a key priority of the United States to help it succeed. If it does, Tunisia will be a democratic model that other Arab countries will be able to emulate. But if Tunisia fails, it is hard to believe that other countries, where conditions are less propitious, will be able to make it. We must not let it fail.

The process has not gone as well in Egypt, where the transition has been overseen not by an open civilian body but rather by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has issued one unilateral communique after another rather than try to shape an inclusive transition process. As a result, there isn’t a consensus on the basic rules of democratic contestation in Egypt, though the process continues to move forward in a confused, back-and-forth fashion; and there is also no agreement on relations between religion and the state. Stepan blames the secular forces that led the January 25 uprising for abdicating political responsibility to the military in return for a guarantee of security and order — what he calls “an ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’-style exchange for military protection against perceived threats from class or sectarian rivals,” a reference to Marx’s famous essay about how divisions and tensions between revolutionary factions during the French Revolution gave Napoleon the opening to seize power.

But it’s much too early to assume that the transition in Egypt has failed. Last Friday I had a conversation with Amr Hamzawy, a newly elected Member of Parliament who had previously been a senior researcher with a leading liberal think tank in Washington. I asked him why he remained hopeful, and he gave me three reasons. First, he said, the civilian political actors have not deviated from the goal of a successful democratic transition. When the military tried to push for its own constitutionally-sanctioned hegemony, people took to the streets in July and then again in November in massive numbers and succeeded in forcing the military to accelerate the transition to civilian rule. The ballot box, Hamzawy said, will reflect and respect the popular will, even as we must remain alert to protecting equal citizen rights.

Second, despite continued human rights problems and the strong military role, “we now have the political space to manage and contain these problems.” The Parliament has banned military trials for civilians, there is a parliamentary committee working to end torture, and this week the Committee on Human Rights, on which he sits, will introduce a new NGO law. The NGO issue has been of great concern to civil society groups in Egypt and, in the wake of the NGO controversy earlier this year, to democracy assistance groups like NED and its party institutes that some in Egypt would like prevent from doing any work in the country. I was assured – and surprised to learn, since we had heard that a very harsh law would be adopted – that a relatively liberal law would be approved, similar to the one in Tunisia, requiring notification of funding but not government permission to receive foreign funds, and also simplifying the process for registering NGOs. If this is true, it would be an important gain for Egyptian civil society and a defeat for the Mubarak holdovers who had been trying to gain public support by whipping up nationalist sentiment against international democracy support.

Finally, Hamzawy said, interest in politics in Egypt is greater than ever. Contrary to what some analysts think, people are not prepared to leave politics aside and instead focus on economic and security issues. I might note that I have heard this from others as well, including the Egyptian intellectual Saad Eddin Ibrahim and the independent journalist Hisham Kassem. They all agree that people at the grassroots have awakened in Egypt and will no longer accept unaccountable rule by a strongman. They want a government that delivers and is accountable to the people, and this will not change.

It is possible, of course, that this perspective is too hopeful. The growing economic crisis that Egypt confronts could upset the whole process, opening the way for a demagogic populist to gain power. And clearly the military still retains the upper hand. But if the presidential elections scheduled for this month and next go forward on schedule and produce a new civilian leadership that has legitimacy, the process of clearing away the remnants of the Mubarak regime can begin, as will the effort to establish civilian authority in relations with the military.

The United States should use its political influence and economic and military assistance to encourage continued progress, and it should not let the recent attacks on NGOs cause it to stop providing democracy support. But this support needs to be provided in a way that is sustainable over time – low key, through nongovernmental channels, and responsive to local needs.

That leaves the very substantial problem of integrating the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists into a new democratic order, but that process has already begun. Saad Eddin Ibrahim has said that there has been a “sea change” in Egypt with respect to the Islamists. A decade ago the mainstream of the movement considered democracy to be a form of sinfulness, representing the desire to assert the primacy of human over divine authority. But now Islamists overwhelmingly accept the rules of the democratic process, and pluralism is actually being fostered as they splinter over policy and philosophy in the process of adapting to the complexities of political and economic life in the modern world.

Abdou Filali-Ansary analyzes the adaptation of Islam to modernity in his Lipset Lecture, which along with the Stepan article on Tunisia, appears in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy. Across the Arab world, he writes, there has emerged “a new language of politics,” containing “views about popular rights and aspirations that are clearly modern,” and facilitating the process by which “democratic legitimacy is becoming the only form of political legitimacy acceptable in Arab societies.” The strong showing of the Islamist parties in all of the elections held thus far is certainly partly due to their resistance to the secular dictatorships of the past as well as to their reputation for incorruptibility and service to the poor. But if they don’t demonstrate an ability to govern effectively and deliver for the people, they will lose support, as they will if they seem to over-reach or behave without integrity. Their standing in Egypt suffered when the Muslim Brotherhood tried to pack the constitutional commission with its supporters, a move that was overturned by the court; and again when it entered candidates in the presidential election after assuring the public that it would not seek that office. What is important is to keep the political system open and competitive so that leaders can be held accountable and the process of political development can continue.

Before I leave the subject of Islamism, I want to note the importance of the leader of the Ennahda party, Rachid Ghannouchi. Once thought to be a dangerous Islamist, he was imprisoned and then forced into exile for two decades. But he has emerged in Tunisia today as a new and authoritative voice for a kind of Islamist modernism. In a speech that he gave recently to the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (a NED grantee), Ghannouchi spelled out his view of the relation that religion should have to the state and to society, a view that has much in common with what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about this country almost two centuries ago. Ghannouchi said that religion should not interfere in politics since its purpose is to focus on larger issues of existence and mortality. Politics, he said, is the sphere of reason and Itjihad, which is the process of adapting Islam to the contingencies of the world; religion, on the other hand, is the sphere of observance and obligation. Its political influence, he said, echoing Tocqueville, should be indirect: to shape the values and principles by which people live – what Tocqueville called the habits of the heart – and that give them the ability to tell right from wrong. It’s what enables them to become responsible citizens in a free society. Moreover, without religion, in Ghannouchi’s view, the state would turn into a mafia and politics would become a form of deception and hypocrisy. Tocqueville, too, worried that without religion people would give in to their “dangerous propensities” toward greed and obsessive materialism.

Ghannouchi prefers the American version of secularism, meaning a secular state coexisting with a religious society, to the French version called laicite, in which there is a “complete separation” between religion and politics and a very attenuated relationship between religion and society. How Islam will exercise its influence on society is still, of course, an important and unresolved issue. Liberal values are weak in the Middle East, and it will be important in the period ahead to defend religious freedom, minority rights, and equal rights and full participation of women. But it is wrong to assume that democracy threatens liberal values, or that their development must precede the establishment of a democratic system. Liberal values can grow through the practice of democracy as people try to solve problems, resolve their differences peacefully, and adapt to the requirements of the modern world. This is what Amartya Sen means when he says that democracy has “constructive importance” in addition to its intrinsic value: “the practice of democracy gives citizens an opportunity to learn from one another, and helps society to form its values and priorities.” This process is only starting in the Middle East, and it is Filali-Ansary’s belief that leaders like Ghannouchi have the capacity to help the region make the transition from tradition to the modern world, and from despotism to constitutional rule. I agree.

Let me say a brief word before I conclude about some other countries where important struggles are underway. I noted earlier that since the last Hurford Lecture, long-ruling strongmen have fallen in two other Arab countries – Gaddafi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen. Each of these countries faces exceedingly difficut challenges, but here, too, there is some reason for cautious optimism.

Libya is still recovering from more than four decades of dictatorship and a destructive civil war. Amnesty International reports that armed militias there are “out of control,” and the transitional government has yet to establish a working judicial system. Still, despite these harsh conditions, independent media outlets and NGOs have mushroomed, as have new political parties. There is also the hope that the constituent assembly elections set for next month will begin the process of establishing a legitimate government and building new democratic institutions. These elections could be delayed, and there are additional concerns that the armed militias could interfere in the political process, but so far the process is moving forward.

In Yemen, the elections held last February established a transitional government that must manage a two-year process of national dialogue and political reconciliation. Among the critical priorities are drawing the Southern movement into the process, engaging the youth activists and civil society groups that led the protests against Saleh but were largely left out of the negotiations that ended his rule, and developing a system of transitional justice that will satisfy demands for accountability for crimes committed by the regime during the uprising.

Elsewhere, King Mohammed in Morocco has so far avoided revolution by undertaking a process of constitutional reform that culminated in parliamentary elections last November. But the real challenge lies ahead, since the parliament is still without real power, and the reforms have done little to counter the deep resentment against official corruption, injustice and the lack of accountability that brought Moroccans into the streets soon after the fall of Mubarak. King Abdullah in Jordan has also faced popular protests, but so far he has responded less adroitly, offering weak reforms and repeatedly shuffling his cabinet. If each of these countries is to avoid a much larger eruption of popular anger, the reforms will have to be deeper and more far-reaching, leading to a constitutional monarchy.

Finally, I want to say a brief word about Syria and Bahrain, two countries that are now experiencing very dangerous sectarian conflict. In Syria there are two urgent needs — to stop the killing and to negotiate a political settlement that will enable the different ethnic communities in this deeply divided country to live together without fear. These are separate objectives, but they should be pursued simultaneously because each can reinforce each other. The measures needed to end the killing – deploying more U.N. monitors, establishing safe havens along the border with Turkey and safe passages from besieged cities, and strengthening sanctions on the Assad regime – can also create the political incentives and the balance of forces that are the precondition for serious negotiations. The alternative to pursuing such an approach with real determination is a worsening civil war that will be a source of regional conflict and instability for years to come.
Regarding Bahrain, I want to note my grave concern over the arrest on Saturday of Nabeel Rajab, one of the country’s leading democracy and human rights activists. With his arrest, all the leading champions of democracy in Bahrain are now in prison. Secretary Clinton said last November in remarks to the National Democratic Institute that Iran is the country that stands to benefit the most from continued repression in Bahrain. With the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, the U.S. has the leverage to reverse this destructive policy. Yet until now we have stood by while the hardliners in Bahrain, supported by Saudi Arabia, sharpen sectarian tensions and repress good people who share our values. We should insist that the human rights defenders now in prison be released and invited to join a process of negotiation modeled on the roundtable talks that led to a peaceful transition in Poland two decades ago.

So what is my answer to the question posed in the title of this lecture: Are the Arab revolts the beginning of a fourth wave of democratization, or is the tide now ebbing? The answer, I think, is that both processes are happening simultaneously. There is a rising wave of newly awakened publics pressing forward even as alarmed autocracies are creating a powerful undertow of resistance to democratic change. The result is that we are now in a period of protracted contestation between these opposing forces, and we are likely to see both gains and reversals in the years ahead. I like the metaphor of a rugby scrum to convey what is happening, but it’s not as catchy as waves and tides.

In the long run, though, I don’t think that what we’re seeing will be a stand-off, since the forces of change in the Middle East and beyond are more powerful than the forces of reaction. Take China, for example. In the near future Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights defender who has been the center of controversy over the last two weeks, will arrive here at NYU Law School at the invitation of Professor Jerome Cohen. If you have the opportunity to speak with him, I think you will learn that despite the repression in China, the forces of change are powerful and ultimately irrepressible. The only question is whether the opening toward greater democratic participation in China will follow the model of a managed transition, which is what we hope is now taking place in Burma — though I realize that this process is exceedingly uncertain — or will take the form of a popular uprising as happened in Tunisia and Egypt. We don’t know. But change is coming. The same pressures exist in Russia, where a weakened President Putin was inaugurated on Monday in the face of growing protests; and in Venezuela where a sick and politically weakened Hugo Chavez will contest an election in October against a newly united opposition. Developments in these and other countries show that the desire for democracy is universal.

That’s also the message of the Arab uprisings. It’s too early to know if the struggles that are taking place in the Middle East will gather enough momentum to constitute a new wave of democratization. And even if such a wave does occur, we know from experience that this will only be the beginning of many difficult transitions. As hard as it is to achieve a democratic breakthrough, the process of building democratic institutions after dictatorship is probably even harder, if also less dangerous. This process has now started in the Middle East, where few people ever though it would, and it is unlikely to be reversed.