Hoping for Arab Mandelas

Written on March 29, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Democracy & Human Rights, Middle East

By Thomas L. Friedman

With Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria now all embroiled in rebellions, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the authoritarian lid that has smothered freedom in the Arab world for centuries may be coming off all 350 million Arab peoples at once. Personally, I think that is exactly what is going to happen over time. Warm up the bus for all the Arab autocrats — and for you, too, Ahmadinejad. As one who has long believed in the democracy potential for this part of the world, color me both really hopeful and really worried about the prospects.

I am hopeful because the Arab peoples are struggling for more representative and honest government, which is what they will need to overcome their huge deficits in education, freedom and women’s empowerment that have been holding them back. But getting from here to there requires crossing a minefield of tribal, sectarian and governance issues.

The best way to understand the potential and pitfalls of this transition is to think about Iraq. I know that the Iraq war and the democracy-building effort that followed have been so bitterly divisive in America that no one wants to talk about Iraq. Well, today we’re going to talk about Iraq because that experience offers some hugely important lessons for how to manage the transition to democratic governance of a multisectarian Arab state when the iron lid is removed.

Democracy requires 3 things: citizens — that is, people who see themselves as part of an undifferentiated national community where anyone can be ruler or ruled. It requires self-determination — that is, voting. And it requires what Michael Mandelbaum, author of “Democracy’s Good Name,” calls “liberty.”

“While voting determines who governs,” he explained, “liberty determines what governments can and cannot do. Liberty encompasses all the rules and limits that govern politics, justice, economics and religion.”

And building liberty is really hard. It will be hard enough in Middle East states with big, homogenous majorities, like Egypt, Tunisia and Iran, where there is already a powerful sense of citizenship and where national unity is more or less assumed. It will be doubly hard in all the other states, which are divided by tribal, ethnic and sectarian identities and where the threat of civil war is ever present. Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on March 26, 2011.


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