Two years after the outbreak of what has come to be known as the Arab Spring, the bloom is off the rose. Fledgling democracies in North Africa are struggling to move forward or even maintain control, government crackdowns in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere have kept liberalization at bay, and Syria is slipping ever deeper into a vicious civil war that threatens to ignite the Middle East. Instead of widespread elation about democracy finally coming to the region, one now hears pessimism about the many obstacles in the way, fear about what will happen next, and even open nostalgia for the old authoritarian order. Last June, when the Egyptian military dismissed parliament and tried to turn back the clock by gutting the civilian presidency, The Wall Street Journal's chief foreign policy columnist cracked, "Let's hope it works." (It didn't.) And Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's attempted power grab in November made such nostalgia commonplace.
The skepticism is as predictable as it is misguided. Every surge of democratization over the last century -- after World War I, after World War II, during the so called third wave in recent decades -- has been followed by an undertow, accompanied by widespread questioning of the viability and even desirability of democratic governance in the areas in question. As soon as political progress stalls, a conservative reaction sets in as critics lament the turbulence of the new era and look back wistfully to the supposed stability and security of its authoritarian predecessor. One would have hoped that by now people would know better -- that they would understand that this is what political development actually looks like, what it has always looked like, in the West just as much as in the Middle East, and that the only way ahead is to plunge forward rather than turn back.
The first error critics make is treating new democracies as blank slates, ignoring how much of their dynamics and fate are inherited rather than chosen. Turmoil, violence, and corruption are taken as evidence of the inherent dysfunctionality of democracy itself, or of the immaturity or irrationality of a particular population, rather than as a sign of the previous dictatorship's pathologies. Because authoritarian regimes lack popular legitimacy, they often manipulate and deepen communal cleavages in order to divide potential opponents and generate support among favored groups. So when democratization occurs, the pent-up distrust and animosity often explode. And because authoritarian regimes rule by command rather than consensus, they suppress dissent and block the creation of political and social institutions that allow for the regular, peaceful articulation and organization of popular demands. So citizens in new democracies often express their grievances in a volatile and disorganized way, through a dizzying array of parties, extremist rhetoric and behavior, and street protests and even battles.