“I have a voice”
The images from Tahrir square in Cairo are deeply moving. People of all walks of life and of all ages, gathering to demand an end to the dictatorship. And not only in Cairo, people all over Egypt have come out to demand democracy. Triggered by the revolutionary movement that erupted in Tunisia and ousted president Ben Ali. Meanwhile, people all over the Arab world are demonstrating for long delayed democratic reforms. We are witnessing the Fourth Wave of democracy in action.

Listening to the demonstrators, a few matters are truly unique. The first is the nature of this revolution: fully people driven with a high level of spontaneous organization. The new ‘liberation technology’ in the form of use of the social networks and twitter are important organizing tools. This is the second remarkable feature of the Fourth Wave of democracy, the availability of the new e-media. The third is the constructive role of the army, both in Tunisia and in Egypt in choosing the side of the people in peaceful demonstrating for an end to dictatorship.

Like Jan Palach, a Czech student who burned himself in 1969 in protest against the suppression of the Prague Spring by the Soviet oppressor, became the symbol of democracy in his country, Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire on December 17th, 2010, in a small Tunisian town, has become the catalyst and perhaps the symbol for the peaceful wave for democracy engulfing the Arab world today.

When relatives of Mohamed Bouazizi were interviewed about the motives for his action, the answer was that he wanted to live in dignity. Unemployment and unfair treatment by government officials may have driven this young academic to despair, but the main source of his agony was that he could not live a dignified life. This has been echoed at Tahrir squire during the past days, people stating that they had overcome their fears and now feel empowered, now “I have a voice”. Although food and employment are key concerns of people throughout the Arab world, the demonstrations are about obtaining basic civic rights and democratic governance.

Democracy back at the agenda
Until the fourth wave was set into motion in Tunisia one month ago now, the Arab world seemed to be the only region in the world not affected by the virus of democracy that reached all other regions during the Third Wave in the last quarter of the 20th century. The Third Wave started with the peaceful transitions to democracy in Portugal, Spain and Greece, followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the return to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, the return to democracy in Chile ending the Pinochet dictatorship, the historic transition in South Africa ending apartheid and the ‘’reformasi’’ in Indonesia ending the Soeharto dictatorship in 1997. In the wake of these historic events, many other countries ended autocratic rule and introduced multiparty democracies. The fact that the Third Wave did not affect the Arab World, made many people believe that democracy and the Arab world were somehow not compatible.

This argument has been rather dubious all along. It is similar to the argument that poor people are not ready for democracy and have to wait until economic development has caught up sufficiently. However, in today’s world, people rich or poor, demand that their voice is counted. Modern communication technology is having a decisive influence on people wanting to live in free and open societies. Universal rights are no abstract rights, they are universal indeed and people everywhere want these rights to be recognized in practice. People in the Arab world are expressing this in mass demonstration every day.

The optimism about the spread of democracy during the 80s and 90s of the past century changed into a pessimism at the start of the new millennium. Analysts noted a backlash against democracy and started to talk about a democratic recession. The rapid economic development of China, the return to autocratic rule in Russia, made people observe, including many Western policy makers, that there are alternative models to liberal democracy.

With this pessimism about democracy the aspired form of government, the financial crises in the West shifted the priorities to the pursuance of economic interests while the necessary advancement of democracy disappeared from the radar screens. Therefore, the current developments in the Arab world, should be a wake-up call for policy- and opinion-makers in the West. What is happening in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries should be putting the need for democracy support back on the agenda. Stability is not served by supporting regimes which oppress their people. Peace and prosperity can only be assured through well functioning democratic states.

How can the drive for democracy be supported?
There are many misconceptions about what democracy support can and cannot do. These misconceptions have been fed by the many negative examples of how support for democracy was used to support in fact other interests. Democracy can not be exported but has to be established from within. When that principle is recognized, much more can be done than in practice is happening. The external policies of the European Union are a point in case. There is no lack of financial or knowledge resources but the political will has been lacking to provide substantive democracy support out of fear of upsetting the repressive status quo in the Arab world. Hopefully, that will now change. The question is, what can be done?

The spontaneity of the popular uprisings mean that people unite around the demand for the dictator and his regime to step down while little to no consensus exists about what needs to be done once that demand has been achieved. The real hard work to establish democracy starts the day the dictator is brought down, keeping the spirit of unity of purpose alive.

A package of support to the call for democracy in the Arab world should include the following activities:

  1. respect
    Meaningful assistance can be provided by first of all paying respect for the people who are driving these peaceful reform processes.
  2. support for transitional government
    The transitional government should be offered access to comparative knowledge about transitions to democracy, in the preparation of free and fair elections under independent management, and in the preparation of an inclusive process to review the constitution to ensure full democratic legitimacy at the end of the transition process.
  3. support beyond the transitional government
    The support should be extended beyond the transitional government. The new era of an open political environment requires support for inclusive dialogues or forums at various levels of society on urgent political, social, economic and security issues across the political spectrum to find wide consensus about needed reforms.
  4. support for security reform
    A transition to democracy requires the introduction of new missions for the various branches of the security sector and a reform and retraining of the security apparatus. This is a key component in transforming a repressive regime into an open democratic society.
  5. support to facilitate wider engagements with the Arab world
    Due to the nature of the regimes and the prevailing conception of Arab ‘exceptionalism’, the people in the Arab world tend to have been less connected, less exposed, to other parts of the world. The social networks are a new contribution to end this relative isolation. However, the development of democracy in Arab countries stands to benefit from more direct personal engagements by professional organizations, academics, media, civil and political society groups, and religious institutions including Islamists with other parts of the world and Europe in particular.
  6. economic assistance and trade incentives
    Support to facilitate the political reform process should be accompanied by providing democratizing countries incentives for economic development and increase of trade opportunities. Different from current practices, assistance to the democratization processes and economic and trade cooperation should be approached as complementing each other.

Roel von Meijenfeldt.
Brussels, February 2nd, 2011