Fourth Wave of democracy engulfing the Arab world

Development Policy03 Feb 2011Roel von Meijenfeldt

The current developments in the Arab world should be a wake-up call for policy makers and opinion leaders in the West. What is happening in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries puts democracy support back on the foreign policy agenda. Stability is not served by supporting regimes that oppress their people. Peace and prosperity can only be achieved through well-functioning democratic states.

The images from Tahrir square in Cairo are deeply moving. People of all walks of life and ages gather to demand an end to the dictatorship. And not just in Cairo: all over Egypt people have come out to demand democracy triggered by the revolutionary movement that erupted in Tunisia and ousted president Ben Ali. Indeed, people all over the Arab world are demonstrating for long-delayed democratic reforms. We are witnessing the ‘Fourth Wave’ of democracy in action.

‘Liberation technology’

Listening to the demonstrators, some features of the recent protests are truly unique. The first is the nature of the demonstrations: they are fully people-driven with a high level of spontaneous organization. The second remarkable feature is the new ‘liberation technology’ in the form of mobile phones, online social networks and Twitter, which are important organizing tools. The third is the constructive role of the army. In Tunisia and Egypt, the army chose the side of the people, as they allowed crowds to demonstrate peacefully 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 army, Mohamed Bouazizi became the symbol of democracy in his country, when he set himself on fire in a small Tunisian town on December 17th 2010. When relatives of Mohamed Bouazizi were interviewed about his motives, they said 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 square in the past few days. People say that they have overcome their fears and feel empowered to ‘have a voice’. While food and employment are key concerns of people throughout the Arab world, the demonstrations are about obtaining basic civil rights and democratic governance.

Democracy back on the agenda

Until recently, the Arab world seemed to be the only region not affected by the virus of the ‘Third Wave’ of democracy in the last quarter of the 20th century. The First Wave is generally understood as the adoption of democracy in the Americas and Europe in the 19th century. The Second Wave is marked by decolonization and the restoration of democracy after the Second World War.

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 end of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the historical transition in South Africa that ended 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 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. Due to the rapid economic development of China and the return to autocratic rule in Russia and elsewhere, analysts started to talk about a ‘backlash against democracy’. The financial crises in the West shifted foreign policy priorities to the pursuit of economic interests – the advancement of democracy disappeared from the radar screens of policy makers.

The fact that the Third Wave did not affect the Arab World has led many people to believe that democracy and the Arab world were somehow incompatible. This belief 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 counts. Modern communication technology is having a decisive impact on the desire of people to live in free and open societies. Universal rights are not abstract ideas; they are universal indeed, and people everywhere want these rights to be realized in practice. People in the Arab world are expressing this in mass demonstration every day.

The current developments in the Arab world should be a wake-up call for policy makers and opinion leaders in the West. What is happening in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries puts democracy support back on the foreign policy agenda. Stability is not served by supporting regimes that oppress their people. Peace and prosperity can only be achieved through well-functioning democratic states.

How can the Fourth Wave of democracy be supported?

There are many misconceptions about what democracy support can and cannot do. Democracy can not be exported but has to be established from within. When that principle is recognized, much more can be done than is currently happening. The external policies of the European Union are a point in case. There is no lack of expertise or financial resources, but there has been a lack of political will to provide substantive democracy support, out of fear of upsetting the status quo in the Arab world. Hopefully, that will now change. The question is, what can be done?

The popular uprisings have emerged spontaneously. People unite around the demand that the dictator and his regime step down. Little or no consensus exists about what needs to be done once that has been achieved. The real hard work to establish democracy starts the very day that the dictator is brought down.

A package of support to the call for democracy in the Arab world should start by paying respect to the people who are driving these peaceful reform processes, and include the following policies:

1. Support for the transitional government

The transitional government should be offered access to knowledge about transitions to democracy: how to prepare free and fair elections under independent management, and how to initiate an inclusive review of the constitution to ensure full democratic legitimacy at the end of the transition process.

2. 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 political dialogues and forums at various levels of society on urgent political, social, economic and security issues in order to achieve a broadly shared consensus about needed reforms.

3. Support for reform of the security forces

A transition to democracy requires the introduction of new missions for the various branches of the security forces and a reform and retraining of the security apparatus. This is a key component in transforming a repressive regime into an open democratic society.

4. Support to facilitate wider engagements with the Arab world

Due to the nature of the regimes and the prevailing concept of Arab ‘exceptionalism’, the people in the Arab world tend to have been less connected and less exposed to other parts of the world. The online 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, politicians, civil society groups and religious institutions, including Islamists, with other parts of the world and Europe in particular.

5. Economic assistance and trade incentives

Support to facilitate the political reform process should be accompanied by providing democratizing countries with incentives for economic development and trade opportunities. Differing from current practice, assistance to the democratization processes on one hand, and economic and trade cooperation on the other, should be approached as complementing each other.