And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: The World's Last Holdout against Democracy-The Middle East-Is Experiencing a Wave of Nascent Freedom

Article excerpt

That creaking sound in January may have been the hinge of fate in the Middle East. Gates that have long barred democracy from the region began to swing ajar. Dramatic elections held in Iraq and the embryonic state of Palestine (following a gripping vote a few months earlier in nearby Afghanistan) may have unfrozen the locks that sealed this region off from the democratizing trend that has swept the rest of the globe over the past 30 years.

Beginning in Portugal in 1974, a democracy wave rippled over southern Europe, then Latin America, large parts of East Asia, eventually the former Soviet bloc, and even sub-Saharan Africa. Today, as a result, some 61 percent of the world's governments have been chosen by their citizens in open, competitive elections.

By 2004, according to the authoritative count by Freedom House, 32 out of 35 states in Latin America and the Caribbean had elected governments, as did 23 out of 39 in Asia and the Pacific. In the states of the former Soviet Union and its satellites, the democratic proportion was 17 out of 27. And in sub-Saharan Africa, despite the poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, tribalism, and artificial borders drawn by colonizers, 19 out of 48 (40 percent) of the governments have been elected by their people.

The Middle East has been the stark exception. In all of the Middle East and North Africa there has been but one elected government: Israel. The 17 states encompassing the Arab and Persian world included not a single government that had been chosen in a fair election.

This gloomy history has reinforced skepticism toward President Bush's announced goal of bringing freedom to the Middle East to serve as an antidote to terrorism. People have pointed to the dearth of freedom in the region and suggested that there must be something in Arab culture that is incompatible with representative governance. Adherents of the "realist" school of foreign policy wonder aloud whether the President is leading our country on a fool's errand.

Is he?

The democracy virus spreads

The doubts expressed today about the possibilities of democracy in the Middle East are similar to things that were said in the past about other countries and cultures. In the 1920s, when democracy collapsed in Roman Catholic countries across southern and eastern Europe, the notion took hold that free government was congruent only with Protestantism. The historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that democracy is a "peculiar institution of the medieval kingdom of England and its political offspring."

Preparing for our occupation of Japan, President Harry Truman received a briefing from the State Department's leading expert on that country who told him, "the best we can hope for is a constitutional monarchy, experience having shown that democracy in Japan would never work." Much the same was said about India's capacity for democratic self government prior to its independence, and about democracy's supposed dissonance with Confucian culture in the days before Taiwan and South Korea became democratic.

Each time, the skeptics claimed to speak from a sense of historical perspective. It took some 570 years from the Magna Carta until the American colonists rebelled against the crown. It was roughly another 90 years until democracy took hold in the mother country. Anglo-American democracy was built on a gradual accretion of rights and of parliamentary practice.

How can countries without such traditions leap to democratic practice overnight? The answer is simple: Societies learn from the others that precede them. Each does not have to follow the long, slow curve of the pioneers.

Two hundred and thirty years ago, the United States was the only country on the globe with an elected government; now there are 117. This spread of democracy has gained momentum in recent decades. Thirty years ago, only about one third of all nations practiced democracy; the present proportion is nearly double that. …