Democracy’s Fourth Wave?

Much has been written and said about the ongoing public uprisings in the Middle East and implications for democracy in the region. In a recent article in the New Republic, Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, goes beyond the Middle East and ponders the global implications of these uprisings. Are we seeing the fourth wave of democracy develop before our own eyes?

As Gershman notes, one of the most interesting things about Mideast uprisings has been the fact that peaceful pro-democracy protests began to take place where most people least expected them. While the world’s attention was focused on Russia, Venezuela, Belarus, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, North Korea, and other places where civil society strives for very basic freedoms, few had thought of even a possibility of the fundamental changes we are seeing today in the Middle East.

And as the changes are taking place, there are several reasons, according to Gershman, that current events will give rise to the fourth wave of democracy:

  • We are seeing that democracy is indeed a universal value, and “Arab exceptionalism” theory does not hold ground.
  • The majority of people in the Middle East, just as in other parts of the world, prefer democracy as the best form of government, according to public opinion surveys.
  • Autocratic governments are less stable than people think they are, especially given the expansion of new communication technologies and social networking that provide people with new means to expose corruption and push for freedom of expression.

In other words, transitions and demands for change in the Middle East should not have been unexpected – they are simply an expression of people’s deep rooted preference for democracy. They are likely to inspire others around the world, at least in showing that change is possible even when few expect it.

Yet, Gershman cautions, countries in the Middle East should prepare for a difficult road ahead – although they possess the energy and euphoria of change, the reality is that reform is never easy and democratic success is never guaranteed. To make that success a reality, several lessons from other transitions are key and among those, two stand out:

  • Developing a national dialogue and negotiation on reform is a prerequisite of success
  • The process for developing a new constitution is not as important as ensuring that it happens transparently and that the public has the opportunity to comment and provide input

But most importantly, when it comes to political reform, one can’t view it in isolation from economic change – something people tend to do in all corners of the world. Economic reform, says Gershman,

…must proceed in tandem with democratic political change. Political reform by itself is not enough. If democracy does not deliver for the people and continues to serve just the interests of entrenched elites that have dominated the economy for decades, public disillusionment and anger will reemerge and produce more upheaval. The answer is not economic populism which will not produce jobs and opportunity. The solution lies in fundamental institutional reform, including changes in the educational system to raise labor productivity and provide young people with the skills needed to compete in a global economy.

And more

A second priority will be removing barriers to entrepreneurship that have forced more than 80 percent of Egyptian businesses into the informal, extra-legal sector. This will require regulatory reform, the protection of property rights and contract enforcement, and changes in antiquated bankruptcy laws that inhibit risk-taking, all of which will require reform of the judicial system. The problem of corruption will also have to be addressed by building broad coalitions of business and civil society to ensure transparency and accountability in decision-making.

And bringing it back to the importance of civil society

This, in turn, will require a new opening for freedom of association—for business associations and trade unions as well as NGOs—which is the crucial link between democratic political change and economic reform. Building an inclusive economic and political system is a tall order, and it will not happen quickly. But it’s necessary to get started now.

Civil society is already leading the way. Just a few weeks ago, ahead of the constitutional referendum, at the request of the independent Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm CIPE helped organize a policy forum on constitution reform, which brought together more than 420 representatives of business associations, political parties, youth and other opposition movements, think tanks, media outlets, and academia to discuss the referendum that took place over the weekend. The participants came out with their own statement on proposed constitutional changes.

This is just one of the many examples of how countries in the Middle East are beginning to experience democracy. Democracy is not only about majority rule or winning elections. It is about dialogue, give-and-take, negotiations, reaching consensus, and necessary reforms that move countries forward and create societies that deliver benefits for all, not just the elites.  Expectations are high in the Middle East, and its up to reformers in the region to meet those expectations and provide inspiration for the rest of the world.

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