The Arab Spring is unlikely to generate a 1989-style wave of democratic transitions or a new phase of color revolutions, writes Marc F. Plattner (left). While the region’s revolts have disproved the myth of Arab exceptionalism, prospects for democracy hinge on the ability of opposition groups’ strategies and demands to overcome the authoritarian resilience and adaptability of the region’s regimes.
The ultimate outcome of the revolts that have been sweeping the Arab world during 2011 remains almost impossible to predict, yet they have already had a dramatic impact on global perceptions of the fortunes of democracy. These uprisings broke out at a moment when democracy seemed to be mired in a period of decline. After the extraordinary progress that democracy had achieved during the last quarter of the twentieth century—what Samuel P. Huntington had famously labeled the “third wave” of democratization—it was perhaps inevitable that its global advance would falter.
But have the Arab revolutions altered the global balance between democratic and authoritarian forces in the contemporary world? Based on what we know so far, they certainly represent at least a temporary boost for the democrats. First, they have once again demonstrated the universal appeal of democracy. This does not mean that it is attractive to every individual. Antiliberal and antidemocratic worldviews have always had their adherents and no doubt will continue to do so. But it does mean that there are substantial numbers of people in every contemporary society who would prefer that their country be governed democratically and that their individual rights be protected.
At the same time, the Arab revolutions have proven that authoritarian regimes are not as formidable as they may appear. During the crest of the third wave, as dictatorships kept falling around the world, there had been a tendency to see them all as doomed by the inexorable advance of democracy. But by the time that the fall of the Berlin Wall had become a distant memory, and authoritarian regimes in such places as China, Burma, Cuba, Iran, much of the former Soviet Union, and most of the Arab Middle East had proved their ability to survive, the pendulum in scholarly thinking had begun to swing to the other side. An entire political science literature grew up to explain what China scholar Andrew Nathan labeled “authoritarian resilience.” A significant subset of this literature focused on the Middle East, explaining how Arab autocrats had successfully adapted superficially democratic-looking institutions such as parliamentary elections to shore up authoritarian rule. Partly as a result, political scientists studying the Middle East were taken completely by surprise when popular revolutions brought down the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes with such remarkable swiftness.
Of course, not all Arab authoritarians would go so easily. Rulers in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere have fought for power tenaciously and have been able to rely upon the support of substantial elements within their societies. A key factor in these struggles has been the role of the armed forces, which is the subject of an article by Zoltan Barany in this issue. Barany points out that the quick success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions owed much to the relatively independent standing of each country’s military, which could look forward to a decent institutional future if it facilitated a change of regime.
In Bahrain and Syria, by contrast, the armed forces (or at least their leaderships) belonged to sectarian minorities—Sunnis in Bahrain and Alawites in Syria—whose fate would be endangered by democratic change, and thus far they have continued to support the regime (though there have been some reports of defections in the Syrian armed forces). In Libya and Yemen, the armed forces suffered internal splits, leading to civil wars whose final results are still in doubt. The importance of the armed forces in these cases reminds us that efforts at democratic change usually involve a two-sided struggle. To evaluate such efforts properly, therefore, we must consider not only the strategies and demands of opposition groups, but also the strategies and the resolve of authoritarian rulers.
Marc F. Plattner is coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and vice-president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. This is an extract from the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Democracy.