Can an Arab country achieve democracy?

Published 3:34 pm Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On the one hand, you have to cheer the massive outpouring of demand for democracy in Egypt. On the other hand, you have to keep your fingers crossed.

For the past 50 years, popular demonstrations have led to expanded freedom more often than not — in India after World War II, but not in Pakistan; in civil rights progress in the United States; in Spain and Portugal in the 1970s; in much of Latin America, the Philippines and Eastern Europe in the 1980s, culminating in the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

But, then, we have the examples of Iran in 1979, where street protests brought in a brutal theocracy, and the Tiananmen Square massacre that China’s rulers committed in 1989 to keep themselves in power.

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I used to be a journalistic democracy-chaser. I was in Portugal amid the “Carnation Revolution” of 1974. Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told me and other reporters traveling in Eastern Europe that the country was headed “down the drain” toward communism.

But in Portugal, the then-U.S. ambassador and later Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci said that was nonsense, that Portugal wanted to be a democracy. And he was right. It was a thrilling moment.

I also was in South Korea in 1987, gas mask at the ready, the day dictator Chun Doo Hwan yielded to the students — and U.S. pressure — and declared there would be free elections. It was another thrilling moment.

As it was — I wasn’t there but covered it closely from Washington — when Ronald Reagan’s personal intermediary, Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., told Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos that he had to go, and he did. With Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega agreed to free elections and lost. (Of course, he got re-elected in 2007.) And, of course, when the Soviet empire collapsed.

But then, there was Iran in 1979. I was there in the lull between the first mass demonstrations in 1978 and the final crescendo at the end of the year, when the shah was trying to institute reform and survive. The U.S. embassy thought he’d make it. He didn’t.

The bottom line is that Egypt could go any which way — to free elections and real democracy, as the Obama administration and most Egyptians and Americans want; or to repression by dictator Hosni Mubarak’s regime, enabling him to hand over power to a chosen successor, or to all-out chaotic revolution or Islamic fundamentalist rule.

Which it might be is anyone’s guess, but this fact has to be faced: If Egypt succeeds in the transition from authoritarian rule to stable democracy, it would be the first Arab country to do so.

The Arab world has benevolent monarchies — Morocco and Jordan — but they are not true democracies. Lebanon is a democracy, but it is unstable, and the terrorist group Hezbollah is now the dominant force in government.

Iraq has had free elections, but the country may yet descend again into sectarian civil war or revert to strong-man rule.

At U.S. urging, the Palestinian Authority held a free election in 2006. It was won by the terrorist faction Hamas, whereupon the result was canceled — except that Hamas violently seized power in Gaza.

President George W. Bush declared, while defending the invasion of Iraq, that there was no reason Arab countries could not be democratic. He suggested it was bigoted to say otherwise.

There’s clearly nothing genetic about the absence of democracy in the Arab world, but there may be something cultural or developmental. It took Europe centuries to become stably democratic, finally arriving fully in the 1990s. Russia isn’t there yet. Africa is far behind.

At a program Wednesday, experts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that the key to Egypt’s future lies with its army, the country’s most respected institution, but said it appeared uncertain what to do and that time is running out for a decision.

The institute’s director, Robert Satloff, said the evidence suggested President Barack Obama made his “bold” statement Tuesday calling for a “transition … now,” believing that the army was on the verge of action.

But on Wednesday, the military stood by as pro-Mubarak thugs assaulted pro-democracy demonstrators in a clear effort to sow chaos.

The Muslim Brotherhood so far has kept a low profile, evidently hoping Mubarak will open parliamentary seats to dissidents, creating a political opening.

But Satloff said he does not agree with opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, who says it’s “bogus” to say the Muslim Brotherhood is violent or extremist. “It’s not the March of Dimes,” Satloff said.

Even though Mubarak has been friendly to U.S. interests — helping fight Islamic extremism, resisting Iranian influence, keeping open the Suez Canal, maintaining ties with Israel, his unpopularity has rubbed off on America’s image.

According to the Pew Global Attitudes poll last year, only 17 percent of Egyptians had a favorable view of the United States, as low as any country in the world. Only 18 percent supported our anti-terror policy.

So it would be a joy to see Egyptian citizens striving for freedom achieve it, and keep it. But even that happy result could have unpleasant consequences for us.

(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)