© BETTMANN / CORBIS Demanding democracy: an opposition protest in Santiago, Chile, November 1983.

Getting to Democracy

Lessons From Successful Transitions

Almost five years ago, mass protests swept the Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power. Most local and foreign observers believed that Egypt was on the path to a democratic future; some even proclaimed that democracy had arrived. But the election of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party led to polarization and violence, and in 2013, after more mass protests, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in a military coup. Since then, Sisi’s regime has killed more than 1,000 civilians, imprisoned tens of thousands more, and cracked down on media and civil society.

Nearby Tunisia has fared better. The wave of Arab uprisings began there in 2010, and the democratic government that Tunisia’s revolution ushered in has survived. It succeeded at one of a transition’s critical tasks: agreeing on a new constitution, an achievement recognized by the Nobel Committee when it awarded its Peace Prize to a quartet of civil society organizations active in Tunisia’s transition. But Tunisia’s democracy remains fragile, threatened by political violence, a crackdown on dissidents, and human rights violations. In Cuba, too, there are finally hopes for a democratic future, as aging authoritarian rulers begin to introduce reforms. And in Myanmar (also known as Burma), a slow and uneven transition from military rule to inclusive governance may be under way, but it remains fraught with difficulties.

A poster of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi amid the debris of a cleared protest camp in Cairo, August 2013. After mass protests, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in a military coup.

A poster of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi amid the debris of a cleared protest camp in Cairo, August 2013.

What determines whether attempts at democratic transitions will be successful? Past experience offers some insights. We conducted extended interviews with 12 former presidents and one former prime minister who played vital roles in the successful democratic transitions of Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, and Spain. Some were leaders in authoritarian regimes who nevertheless helped steer their countries toward effective democracy. F. W. de Klerk, as president of South Africa, negotiated with Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (

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