'Enough!' the Arabs say, but will it be enough?
March 21, 2011
The cry first rang out from the fed-up people of Lisbon and Madrid: "Basta!"
It echoed across South America, to the banging of pots and pans. It resounded in the old capitals of a new Asia, was taken up in a Polish shipyard, awakened a slumbering Africa. And now, a generation later, it's heard in the city squares of the Arab world: "Kifaya!"
From Morocco in the west to Yemen in the east, the sudden rising up of ordinary Arabs against their autocratic rulers looks like a belated postscript to the changes that swept the globe in the final decades of the last century — a period scholars dubbed the "third wave of democracy."
"Now we're witnessing the fourth wave of democracy," a smiling Oraib al-Rantawi, Jordanian political activist, assured a visitor to Amman. "We're lucky to live to see it."
You could see it one brilliant afternoon on Talal Street in this cream-colored city of minarets and hills, where more than 2,000 Jordanians marched along in a river of flags and protest signs, adding their voices to those in almost a dozen other Arab lands demanding greater freedoms, a bigger say in running their societies.
"The people across the region have risen and our leaders are still asleep," protest leader Sufian Tal told these unhappy subjects of Jordan's King Abdullah II.
"Enough is enough!"
In Amman and Cairo, in Sanaa and Benghazi, it's clear: They've had enough. But is the Arab world truly on the threshold of democracy? Why did it take so long? And why in our lifetimes did this idea of "one person, one vote" spread so swiftly over the globe?
Twenty-six floors up in a Wall Street office tower, near the spot where George Washington took the oath to lead a newborn American democracy, Arch Puddington and his Freedom House staff meticulously track the idea's planetary progress.
For almost 40 years, this think tank's New York researchers have annually assessed the state of democracy and associated freedoms, classifying nations in three categories — free, partly free or not free. The numbers tell a striking story: Almost half the world's nations were rated not free in 1972, but by last year that proportion had dropped below one-quarter.
"What impresses me is how it's exploded when you had centuries when democracies didn't exist at all, and for quite a few years were restricted to a few places," Puddington said.
Political scientists identify democracy's "first wave" as the revolutionary period of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the second as the post-World War II restoration of traditional democracies.
The third wave, they now see, began in the mid-1970s, when people in Portugal and Spain threw off decades of military dictatorship. That upheaval helped inspire their former Latin American colonies to topple their own authoritarians-in-uniform in the 1980s, when the rhythmic banging of cookware in the Santiago night signaled that Chileans, for one, were fed up.
The wave rolled on to east Asia, to the Philippines' "People Power" revolution, South Korea's embrace of civilian democracy, Taiwan's ending of one-party rule. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.
Eastern Europe's post-Communist transition, foreshadowed by Solidarity's rise in a Gdansk shipyard, delivered a dozen nations to Puddington's democratic column. The wave then reached sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of countries with multiparty electoral systems soared from a mere three in 1989 to 18 by 1995.
From about 40 democracies worldwide late in Spain's Franco dictatorship, the number stood at 123 by 2005. Despots by the dozen — the Duvaliers and Marcoses, Stroessners and Ceausescus — were abruptly consigned to a grim past.
Elections in some transformed states proved not always free and fair. Some failed to protect minorities against the "tyranny of the majority," the bane of mass rule. Some did little to better their impoverished people's everyday lives. More
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.