The decades-long political winter in the Arab world seemed to be thawing early this year as mass protests toppled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. It appeared as though one rotten Arab dictatorship after another might fall during the so-called Arab Spring. Analogies were quickly conjured to 1989, when another frozen political space, Eastern Europe, saw one dictatorship after another collapse. A similar wave of democratic transitions in the Arab world was finally possible to imagine, particularly given the extent to which previous transformations had been regional in scope: Portugal, Spain, and Greece all democratized in the mid-1970s; much of Latin America did shortly thereafter; Korea and Taiwan quickly followed the Philippines’ political opening in 1986; and then a wave of change in sub-Saharan Africa began in 1990. All of those were part of the transformative “third wave” of global democratization. In March, many scholars and activists reasonably imagined that a “fourth wave” had begun.
Two months later, however, a late spring freeze has seemingly hit some areas of the region. And it could be a protracted one. Certainly, each previous regional wave of democratic change had to contend with authoritarian hard-liners, opposition divisions, and divergent national trends. But most of the Arab political openings are closing faster and more harshly than happened in other regions -- save for the former Soviet Union, where most new democratic regimes quickly drifted back toward autocracy.
If Tunisia still provides grounds for cautious optimism, the Egyptian
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