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Tumbling Dominoes in the Middle East?

Is the Middle East primed for a wave of democracy?

February 28, 2005

Is the Middle East primed for a wave of democracy?

During the Cold War, many hawkish observers warned that Communists in Asia and Latin America could trigger a chain reaction: If Vietnam fell, then Cambodia and Laos would follow.

And, it was argued, if Nicaragua fell, then communism would spread across Latin America. In fact, the dominoes in Latin America fell the other way.

During the 1980s, Latin America moved from being overwhelmingly autocratic to overwhelmingly democratic. Nicaragua itself, communism's lone outpost on the mainland, was forced to concede open elections and the Sandinistas were swept from power.

Over an even shorter period, Soviet power was overthrown in central and eastern Europe, and finally in the Soviet Union itself. But are the neo-cons right to believe that the Arab world is ripe for a similar revolution?

The Soviet empire is not a valid comparison for the Arab states. It was dominated by a single totalitarian dictatorship. As the Soviet Union began to crumble, client governments in other states were forced from power, and when a coup — a last ditch attempt to hold the Soviet Union together — failed, democratic forces triumphed in Moscow itself.

The Arab states are not dominated by one power, and are therefore not so prone to a single wave of liberation. But nor were the autocracies of Latin America, and yet, they also fell in a relatively short space of time.

Unlike the Soviet bloc, it is impossible to trace the democratic wave in Latin America to a specific event or person.

But there were key moments. The fall of Argentinean junta in the aftermath of the Falklands war was one. This event was quite different from the coalition intervention in Iraq.

Britain did not defeat Argentina in order to replace its particularly repugnant dictatorship with a liberal democracy. This was a happy by-product. This and other unrelated events combined to utterly change an entire continent. Why?

The simple answer is that Latin America was ready. Its people attained a level of wealth and access to information about the outside world that made it difficult, if not impossible, for autocracy to survive.

The free flow of information is lethal to dictatorship. The more developed parts of east Asia — such as South Korea and Taiwan — reached the same level economically and then politically, at around the same time. Other Asian states are following.

The Arab world is different. Much of it is very poor and the states that are oil-rich leave the wealth in the hands of the government — and not the people. But technological changes mean you no longer have to be rich to gain access to information.

Only small minorities in most Arab states have satellite televisions or Internet access, but there are enough people who do have access to these uncensored sources of information to threaten the survival of the Arab dictatorships.

And happenstance seems to be working in favor of democratic forces. It has been clear for three years or so that the most likely Arab governments to see genuine democracy would be post-liberation Iraq and the Palestinian Authority.

Yet, it was the timing of Yasser Arafat's death that led to these elections taking place within weeks of each other. If these hopeful signs are to be the start of a trend, then which Arab countries are likely to follow? Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia are embarking on cautious reforms.

Kuwait already has a pluralistic political structure. The government does not control the elected Parliament.

The Emirate cannot be called a democracy because the franchise is restricted to men, but the fact that pluralistic structures exist means that the transition to democracy, when it comes, could prove as smooth as in post-apartheid South Africa.

Perhaps the brightest immediate hope for democratic reform is in Lebanon. Opponents of liberty have struck, by murdering former Prime Minister Hariri.

I suspect they have overreached themselves in a desperate attempt to block reform and will find the backlash makes the reform movement even stronger.

And it may not be limited to Lebanon. Already Bashir Assad, a cautious reformer, has dismissed the head of Syria's intelligence services, presumably for complicity in the Beirut murder. If Assad definitively breaks with the Stalinists left in place by his father it could provoke a showdown in Damascus, too.

The autocrats in both Lebanon and Syria could well have unleashed forces they will be unable to control. This could be their Falklands War or Soviet coup.