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.