During the turmoil of the French Revolution, a popular saying arose: “How beautiful was the republic — under the monarchy.” The revolution aimed at achieving liberty, equality and fraternity. Instead, it wrought for France Jacobin terror, rightwing counterterror, decades of war and then Napoleonic tyranny.

A similar challenge now faces North Africa and the Middle East, where most Arab countries are experiencing massive upheavals. Historically speaking, what is now happening is without precedent in the Arab world. For the first time, Arab authoritarian regimes have been toppled, and others are threatened, by demonstrations calling for freedom and democracy. Previously, Arab regimes changed through military coups and other putsches, never through popular revolutions.

During the great democratic wave of the 1990s, which brought down dictatorships in Eastern Europe, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, nothing similar happened in Arab North Africa and the Middle East. Now, however, the region’s political inertia has been disrupted. Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become a symbol for both hope and “people power.” Yet, while most Arab regimes now appear threatened, only two authoritarian rulers — Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt — have been actually deposed so far.

Theirs were relatively “soft” autocracies. Much more oppressive and ruthless rulers — Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, Bashar Assad in Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen — though seriously threatened, have proven far more resilient in suppressing popular opposition. Even in tiny Bahrain, the Sunni minority has, for now, succeeded in maintaining its rule over the Shiite majority, albeit with military help from neighboring Sunni-led countries.

As always, it is easier to bring down an autocracy than to construct and consolidate a democratic regime. When communism in Eastern Europe collapsed, their old systems, despite some obvious differences, had the same characteristics: they were one-party dictatorships, with state control over the economy, education, and the media.

Today, they are very different from each other. Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary, for example, navigated a successful transition to democracy and a functioning market economy. Russia reverted to a neo-authoritarian system. The ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia have all developed “sultanistic” forms of government.

The reason for these differences is simple: democratic transition requires not only elections, but also several pre-conditions — a vibrant civil society; previous traditions, whether actual or remembered, of representation, pluralism, tolerance, and individualism; a limited role of religion; and an effective institutional framework for a multi-party system. Where these conditions exist, a transition to democracy can succeed; where they are missing, the chances — as in Russia — for a transition to a consolidated democracy are slim.

Developments in Egypt will be crucial, not only because it is the largest Arab country, but also because some of the necessary pre-conditions appear to have a stronger presence there than elsewhere in the region.

Yet, even in Egypt, the challenges are enormous. With early elections called for September, there is serious doubt as to whether opposition groups will have the time, means and experience to organize effective political parties. Now, only the army — which has effectively ruled the country since 1952 — and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has the widest social networks, appear to be serious players.

Will the army be willing to give up the enormous political and economic clout that it has amassed over decades? One hears about a possible modus vivendi between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, some activists are already back in Tahrir Square demonstrating against such an incongruous yet possible alliance.

In Libya, if Gadhafi falls, can such a highly tribalized country possess the building blocks needed for a functioning democracy?

The issue, one should emphasize, is not Islam as such: In Europe, the Catholic Church was for a long time the greatest enemy of democracy and liberalism. Yet Christian Democratic parties today are one of the pillars of European democracy.

Like Christianity, Islam can also change, and Indonesia and Turkey could well be examples for such a possibility. But a context in which a fundamentalist Islamic group like the Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest organization in society, with very little effective countervailing powers, creates a serious challenge.

How will all of this influence the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which appears stuck? It may be difficult to know, especially as the fundamentalist Hamas, now in control of Gaza, might be encouraged by the rising power of its parent organization in Egypt. The recent escalation of violence along Gaza’s border with Israel does suggest that events are developing in a dangerous direction.

As for Israel, it initially responded to the Arab revolts in a confused way. Now its leaders maintain that they would welcome democratic changes in the region as a guarantor of peace and common values, though they express skepticism about whether such developments are imminent.

Skepticism is in order also with respect to the unknown consequences of Western military intervention in Libya: It may have been asked for by the Arab League and legitimized by the U.N. Security Council, yet the outcome is far from certain.

Whatever happens in Libya will have repercussions across the region. The road to democracy has always been rocky — look at a century of upheavals in Europe. It is to be hoped that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel in the Arab Middle East as well, but the tunnel may be long.

Shlomo Avineri, former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. © Project Syndicate, 2011

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