Turbulence in the Fourth Wave

Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Dominos falling
Image credit: 
Taylor Jones

The decades-long political winter in the Arab world seemed to be thawing earlier this year, when it appeared that one rotten Arab dictatorship after another might fall. Many people thought of 1989, when another frozen political space, Eastern Europe, saw a string of dictatorships collapse. It finally seemed possible to imagine a similar tide of democratic transitions in the Arab world, especially because the previous surges had been regional: Portugal, Spain, and Greece in the mid-1970s; much of Latin America shortly thereafter; South Korea and Taiwan after the Philippines’ political opening in 1986; and sub-Saharan Africa beginning in 1990. All of those were part of the transformative “third wave” of global democratization. Amid the Arab spring, many scholars and activists reasonably imagined that a fourth wave had begun.

Not long afterward, however, a late spring freeze appeared to have settled upon some areas. 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, events in Egypt are deeply worrying. Egypt’s senior officer corps, which controls the government, does not want to facilitate a genuine democratic transition. It will try to prevent it by generating conditions that discredit democracy and make Egyptians (and U.S. policy makers) beg for the return of a strong hand. The ruling officers ignore mounting religious and sectarian strife and an alarming explosion in crime. The military has spent enormous effort arresting thousands of peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square and trying them in military tribunals (in April, one such detainee, a blogger named Maikel Nabil, was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the military establishment”), yet it claims that it cannot rein in rising insecurity. Many Egyptians see this as part of the military’s grand design to undermine democracy before it takes hold.

The parliamentary elections slated for this fall are unlikely to help: new political forces have no chance of being able to build competitive party and campaign structures in time. The Muslim Brotherhood, which initially said it would contest only a third of the parliamentary seats, later announced its intention to contest half of all seats, forming a new political party (Freedom and Justice) for the purpose. If the electoral system retains its highly majoritarian nature, the Brotherhood’s party might well win a thumping majority of the seats it contests, with most of the rest going to local power brokers and former stalwarts of the Mubarak-era ruling party, the National Democratic Party.

Even if fitful, the Arab spring will eventually bring fundamental political change—but not necessarily democracy.

Elsewhere in the region, Bahrain’s minority Sunni monarchy crushed peaceful protests, arresting and torturing many of those with whom it might have negotiated some future power-sharing deal. With active Iranian support and a bizarre degree of American and Israeli acceptance, Syrian President Bashar Assad unleashed a slow-motion massacre that could go on for months. In Yemen, the government remains paralyzed, food prices are rising, and the country is drifting. Having seen the fate of Hosni Mubarak, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is playing for time, but his legitimacy is irretrievably drained and he cannot mobilize repressive force on the scale of Assad’s.

Too much U.S. money thrown at groups seeking to build civil society would discredit them as “American pawns” and promote corruption.

Jordan and Morocco are not in crisis but could be soon. Both countries face the same conditions that brought down seemingly secure autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt: mounting frustration with corruption, joblessness, social injustice, and closed political systems. Not yet facing mass protests, Jordan’s King Abdullah is in a position to lead a measured process of democratic reform from above to revise electoral laws, rein in corruption, and grant more freedom. Yet there is little sign that he has the vision or political self-confidence to modernize in this way.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is still domestically revered and internationally cited as a reformer, but he is even weaker and more feckless than Abdullah. He has been unwilling to rein in the deeply venal interests that surround the monarchy or ease the country’s concentration of wealth and business ownership. Instead, his security forces, narrow circle of royal friends, and oligopolistic business cronies fend off demands for accountability and reform, further isolate the king, and aggravate the political storm gathering beneath a comparatively calm surface.


Scholars of the Arab world had been arguing for years that the region’s various repressive regimes (not least Saudi Arabia’s Al-Saud dynasty, which keeps several thousand princes on the take) would either pursue democratic reform or rot internally until they were overthrown. Ultimately, the options remain open for the regimes that have avoided revolution this year. Those that have reasserted authoritarianism will find only temporary reprieve. Both theory and political experience teach that regimes with spent legitimacy do not last, and the legitimacy of the Syrian and Yemeni dictators is utterly depleted. They will surely be overthrown—if not now, then in coming years. The Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies, however, could still survive if they spent what remains of their political legitimacy on democratic reform. In other words, even if the Arab spring comes in fits and starts, it will eventually bring fundamental political change, although not necessarily democracy.

The United States has never faced a more urgent set of opportunities and challenges in the Arab world: real prospects for democratic development exist alongside the risks of Islamist ascension, political chaos, and humanitarian disaster. Countries across the Arab world differ widely in political structures and social conditions, and the United States cannot pursue a one-size-fits-all strategy. But there are a few basic principles that it should apply everywhere. The Obama administration must explicitly and consistently denounce all violent repression of peaceful protest, and it should enhance the credibility of those words by tying them to consequences. For example, the United States identified and froze the overseas assets of top Libyan officials who were responsible for brutality. It also imposed travel bans on them and their family members, and asked Europe to do the same. The administration moved to freeze the personal assets of Assad and other top Syrian officials. In extreme cases such as these, the United States can press the United Nations Security Council to refer individuals to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Dominos falling

When Arab governments turn weapons against peaceful protesters, the United States and Europe should stop supplying them with weapons. Western countries have been selling or giving regimes like Saleh’s the tools of repression, including tear gas, ammunition, sniper rifles, close-assault weapons, rockets, and tanks. Although Saleh may have been a valuable asset in the fight against terrorism at one time, he has become a liability. By ending such trade, the United States can send a message to the leaders of Bahrain (another recipient) and Yemen that assaulting and arresting peaceful demonstrators means no more U.S. guns.


Continuing the Arab thaw depends on finding mediators to break the impasse between rulers and their opposition and ease the remaining dictators out of power. Recognizing the need for an active U.N. role during the Arab uprisings, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been dispatching experienced staff to Yemen and elsewhere. These diplomats can help develop possible political accommodations with the protesters. The United States should encourage the United Nations to try to mediate these conflicts, reconcile deeply divided forces within political oppositions, and help governments pave the way for credible elections. Because it is more neutral, the United Nations is the international actor best suited to mediate, convene experts on institutional design, and supply technical support for drafting constitutions.

In Egypt, new political forces have no chance of building competitive party and campaign structures before the parliamentary elections.

American diplomats have their own role to play: they can channel financial and programmatic support and provide another venue for different actors to meet and discuss differences. They should also speak out for human rights, civil society, and the democratic process. Such expressions of moral and practical support have made a significant difference in transitional situations in other countries, including Chile, the Philippines, Poland, and South Africa. The Arab world has its own distinct sensitivities, but the uprisings present an unusual opportunity for U.S. ambassadors to join with representatives of other democracies to lean on Arab autocrats and aid Arab democrats.

The United States should help Arab democrats get the training and financial assistance they need to survive while urging them to cooperate with one another. This does not just mean more grants to civil society organizations. There is, of course, a need for such funding, but too much U.S. money thrown at these groups will discredit them as “American pawns” or promote corruption. Aid should be pooled among multiple donors, provide core (rather than project-related) funding for organizations with a proven track record of advancing democratic change, and be carefully monitored to ensure its effective use.

Finally, Egypt must be given its due. Given its enormous demographic weight and political influence in the Arab world, as Egypt goes, so will go the region. Engaging it is vital to any larger strategy of fostering democratic change. Beyond aid and vigilant monitoring of the political process, the United States must deliver a clear message to the Egyptian military that it will not support a sabotage of the democratic process, and that reverting to authoritarianism would have serious consequences for the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, including military aid. The United States cannot allow the Egyptian military to play the cynical double game practiced by the Pakistani military. There are two ways in which Egypt might become another Pakistan: an overbearing military might hide behind the facade of democracy to run the country, and the military might show that it cannot be taken for granted by consorting with our friends one day and our enemies—radical Islamists within Egypt and Hamas outside it—the next.

This period of change in the Arab world will not be short or neatly circumscribed. Not a continuous thaw or freeze, the coming years will see cycles: ups and downs in a protracted struggle to define the political future. The need for steady principles, clear understanding, and long-term strategic thinking has never been more pressing.