With Syria descending ever deeper into civil war, the Egyptian military stepping in to oust the country’s increasingly authoritarian elected government, and little political progress elsewhere in the region, the heady early days of the Arab Spring are a distant and fading memory. Some skeptics argue that this should prompt a more positive reconsideration of the previous authoritarian order; others have decided that liberalism is more important than democracy, and suggest sacrificing the latter in an attempt to get the former. Still others -- perhaps a majority in the West -- shake their heads sadly and link the problems to region-specific factors such as religion and political culture, arguing that recent events show how Arabs, or Muslims more generally, are simply unready for or unsuited to political freedom.

The dismay at what is happening in the Middle East is legitimate, but the general analysis of its causes and implications is hogwash. As I wrote in “The Promise of the Arab Spring,” this is what political development in the real world actually looks like, and anybody who expected smooth, quick, linear progress from tyranny to liberal democracy was naïve or foolish. Scores of countries around the world have undergone democratic transformations in recent centuries, and almost none of them have done so without turbulence, delays, and backsliding. All of the advanced industrial democracies have troubles in their past that easily rival or surpass what countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and even Syria are going through now, and it is sheer ignorance or prejudice to ignore such historical patterns.

The fundamental mistake most commentators on the Arab Spring make is underestimating the scale, scope, and perniciousness of authoritarianism. Tyranny is more than a type of political order; it is an economic and social system as well, one that permeates most aspects of a country’s life and has deep roots in a vast array of formal and informal institutions. Achieving liberal democracy is thus not simply a matter of changing some lines on a political wiring diagram but, rather, of eliminating authoritarian legacies in the society, economy, and culture as well. This is almost always an incredibly difficult, exhausting, and protracted process. It didn’t happen in many parts of Western Europe until the second half of the twentieth century, in fact, which is why so many earlier democratic experiments there were flawed or outright failures. And it still hasn’t happened in all of Eastern Europe and Russia.

Fine, some might say -- many countries also had false starts or problems with democratization. Why should that make us think differently about what is happening in, say, Egypt now? Because those false starts and problems, the turmoil and the chaos and yes, sometimes even the violence, were an inherent and often necessary part of the process that ultimately abolished authoritarianism and paved the way for liberal democracy. What is going on in the Middle East today is not a bug in political development but a feature of it. History shows that illiberal democracy is often a precursor to liberal democracy. What has happened time and again is that a country begins with a nondemocratic regime, proceeds through a phase (or several phases) of minimal or illiberal democratic experience, and eventually emerges with a consolidated liberal democracy. Almost all early democratic experiments around the world were illiberal or deeply problematic, and many ended badly. Only after many generations and attempts were most countries able to consolidate truly liberal democracies -- that is, to eradicate deeply ingrained nondemocratic behaviors and attitudes and develop new ways of thinking and acting that would enable liberal democracy to survive and flourish.

None of this is meant to suggest that, say, Mohamed Morsi was a good leader in Egypt, or that the rebels in Syria are all Jeffersonian democrats, or that a bright future for the Middle East lies just around the corner. It almost certainly does not -- as a look at, say, Europe from 1789 to 1945 would indicate. But it does mean that the problems of the Middle East today are more the norm than the exception, and that they have less to do with case-specific factors such as ethnicity, religion, or ideology than they do with the inherent difficulty and complexity of building truly liberal democratic regimes. Getting rid of authoritarianism is a long and nasty process; in the Middle East, at least that process has finally begun.

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  • SHERI BERMAN is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University.
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