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Jul

Despite the chaos, the blood and the democratic setbacks, this is a long process. Do not give up hope.

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Roughly two-and-a-half years after the revolutions in the Arab world, not a single country is yet plainly on course to become a stable, peaceful democracy. The countries that were more hopeful—Tunisia, Libya and Yemen—have been struggling. A chaotic experiment with democracy in Egypt, the most populous of them, has landed an elected president behind bars. Syria is awash with the blood of civil war.

No wonder some have come to think the Arab spring is doomed. The Middle East, they argue, is not ready to change. One reason is that it does not have democratic institutions, so people power will decay into anarchy or provoke the reimposition of dictatorship. The other is that the region’s one cohesive force is Islam, which—it is argued—cannot accommodate democracy. The Middle East, they conclude, would be better off if the Arab spring had never happened at all.

That view is at best premature, at worst wrong. Democratic transitions are often violent and lengthy. The worst consequences of the Arab spring—in Libya initially, in Syria now—are dreadful. Yet as our special report argues, most Arabs do not want to turn the clock back.

Putting the cart before the camel

Those who say that the Arab spring has failed ignore the long winter before, and its impact on people’s lives. In 1960 Egypt and South Korea shared similar life-expectancy and GDP per head. Today they inhabit different worlds. Although many more Egyptians now live in cities and three-quarters of the population is literate, GDP per head is only a fifth of South Korea’s. Poverty and stunting from malnutrition are far too common. The Muslim Brotherhood’s brief and incompetent government did nothing to reverse this, but Egypt’s deeper problems were aggravated by the strongmen who preceded them. And many other Arab countries fared no better.

This matters, because, given the Arab spring’s uneven progress, many say the answer is authoritarian modernisation: an Augusto Pinochet, Lee Kuan Yew or Deng Xiaoping to keep order and make the economy grow. Unlike South-East Asians, the Arabs can boast no philosopher-king who has willingly nurtured democracy as his economy has flourished. Instead, the dictator’s brothers and the first lady’s cousins get all the best businesses. And the despots—always wary of stirring up the masses—have tended to duck the big challenges of reform, such as gradually removing the energy subsidies that in Egypt alone swallow 8% of GDP. Even now the oil-rich monarchies are trying to buy peace; but as an educated and disenfranchised youth sniffs freedom, the old way of doing things looks ever more impossible, unless, as in Syria, the ruler is prepared to shed vast amounts of blood to stay in charge. Some of the more go-ahead Arab monarchies, for example in Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait, are groping towards constitutional systems that give their subjects a bigger say. Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on July 13, 2013 (from the print edition).

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