AMMAN, Jordan — The cry first rang out from the fed-up people of Lisbon and Madrid: “Basta!”
It echoed across South America, to the banging of pots and pans. It resounded in the old capitals of a new Asia, was taken up in a Polish shipyard, awakened a slumbering Africa. And now, a generation later, it’s heard in the city squares of the Arab world: “Kifaya!”
From Morocco in the west to Yemen in the east, the sudden rising up of ordinary Arabs against their autocratic rulers looks like a belated postscript to the changes that swept the globe in the final decades of the last century — a period scholars dubbed the “third wave of democracy.”
“Now we’re witnessing the fourth wave of democracy,” a smiling Oraib al-Rantawi, Jordanian political activist, assured a visitor to Amman. “We’re lucky to live to see it.”
You could see it one brilliant afternoon on Talal Street in this cream-colored city of minarets and hills, where more than 2,000 Jordanians marched along in a river of flags and protest signs, adding their voices to those in almost a dozen other Arab lands demanding greater freedoms, a bigger say in running their societies.
“The people across the region have risen and our leaders are still asleep,” protest leader Sufian Tal told these unhappy subjects of Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
“Enough is enough!”
In Amman and Cairo, in Sanaa and Benghazi, it’s clear: They’ve had enough. But is the Arab world truly on the threshold of democracy? Why did it take so long? And why in our lifetimes did this idea of “one person, one vote” spread so swiftly over the globe?
Twenty-six floors up in a Wall Street office tower, near the spot where George Washington took the oath to lead a newborn American democracy, Arch Puddington and his Freedom House staff meticulously track the idea’s planetary progress.
For almost 40 years, this think tank’s New York researchers have annually assessed the state of democracy and associated freedoms, classifying nations in three categories — free, partly free or not free. The numbers tell a striking story: Almost half the world’s nations were rated not free in 1972, but by last year that proportion had dropped below one-quarter.
“What impresses me is how it’s exploded when you had centuries when democracies didn’t exist at all, and for quite a few years were restricted to a few places,” Puddington said.
Political scientists identify democracy’s “first wave” as the revolutionary period of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the second as the post-World War II restoration of traditional democracies.
The third wave, they now see, began in the mid-1970s, when people in Portugal and Spain threw off decades of military dictatorship. When the third wave finally ebbed a decade ago, only Arab societies were left untouched, noted al-Rantawi, director of Amman’s Al Quds Center for Political Studies.
“Sometimes we believed we were another kind of human,” he said with a laugh. “Practically all the world had become democratic, except us.”
Why? Again, a list of reasons is cited: poverty and illiteracy; a postcolonial period, including wars with Israel, that empowered local militaries; oil wealth enriching traditional sheiks and other authoritarians; the U.S. and other oil-importing powers favoring the predictability of friendly autocrats.
Now the shock of Tunis and Cairo, the removal of two seemingly immovable presidents, accompanied by explosions of protest elsewhere, seems to be leapfrogging those obstacles, propelled by the Internet and instant communication.
But where the fed-up Arab millions are headed in Egypt and Tunisia, and possibly soon in other lands, is the unanswered question of the moment.
“Democracy is not the certain outcome,” said Vidar Helgesen, head of the Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a 27-nation consortium that aids political transitions.
“Mass protests can overthrow a dictatorship but cannot build democracy,” Helgesen said. That requires overhauling constitutions, establishing free, fair elections, adopting laws guaranteeing political rights, freedom of expression, independent judiciaries.
The biggest uncertainties hang over the biggest Arab nation, the 80 million people of Egypt.
Will its military commanders, “interim” leaders now that President Hosni Mubarak is gone, fully surrender the control they have exercised directly or indirectly for almost 60 years? Can strong political parties emerge soon enough? Will the well-organized Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood dominate a new Egypt?
This prospect of Islamist ascendancy has long been another obstacle to Arab democracy.
Arab leaders, U.S. politicians, Israeli voices spoke nervously of “one man, one vote, one time” — imposition of undemocratic, puritanical Quranic rule if open elections put religious parties in power. It’s a fear that led Algeria’s military to suppress an incipient democracy there as Islamists neared election victory in 1992.
But other voices today insist political Islam doesn’t endanger democracy. They point to the “Turkish model,” where an elected Islamist party governs without remaking the secular, multiparty state.
“The majority of Muslims in the Middle East today believe there is no incompatibility between Islam and democracy,” said Radwan Masmoudi, founder of the U.S.-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.
Mideast scholar Lisa Anderson agrees.
“There have been Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists in Europe for 100 years, and nobody thought that was going to capsize democracy,” said Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo.
Elsewhere in Cairo, after group prayers in the Muslim Brotherhood’s cramped offices beside the Nile, leading spokesman Mohammed Saad el-Katatney outlined plans for a new Freedom and Justice Party to contest elections expected as early as June. He clearly wanted to allay concerns about a takeover.
“We think it would be unsuitable to be opportunistic and seek a majority in Parliament,” he told The Associated Press, saying his party instead intends to vie for only a limited number of parliamentary seats.
Ultimately, said this 58-year-old microbiologist, “our goal is to establish a civil state, not a religious state.” But it would be a civil state “in reference to the principles of the laws of Islamic sharia” — something, he noted, already enshrined in Egypt’s constitution.
In Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, on the edge of a roaring throng of tens of thousands gathered for another Friday demonstration, two very different young women sounded unpersuaded by Brotherhood reassurances.
“Young people, a mixture of people, will dominate the democracy, not Islam,” said jeans-clad teenager Amira Esam Shwihi. “We want to separate religion and politics.”
Nearby, Samah Amer, 25, black Islamic garb covering all but her eyes, said the Muslim Brotherhood “doesn’t represent all of Egypt. I want a changed political system, not turn it into an Islamic system.”
Some say the change may occur in the Brotherhood itself.
Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brothers, sees a “generation gap, generational tension” in which younger members are pressing for acceptance of a Turkish model within the organization.
“Islamism is not a static ideology. People are moving forward,” said Ramadan, an Islamic studies professor at Oxford University.
That’s what liberal activist Abdallah Helmy said he found in the tumult of Egypt’s winter revolution.
“In two weeks of camping in Tahrir Square, we exchanged ideas with young Muslim Brothers,” said Helmy, 34. “And we found exactly the same point of view. They would accept having a Christian president, for example. They would accept men and women meeting together.”
Ramadan cautioned Islamists and secularists alike, however, against expecting too much too soon. With the army’s heavy hand on Egypt’s transition, “I think it’s going to be very difficult to have an achieved, complete democracy,” he said.
It has seldom been easy. It took a civil war and more for Washington’s America to evolve into today’s democracy. And in just one example from Puddington’s latest report, Freedom House downgrades Ukraine’s democracy, once viewed as a post-Communist model, to “partly free” because of new authoritarian tendencies.
Stable democracies “will take a very long time in the Middle East,” said Carl Gershman, head since 1984 of the non-governmental U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, whose $100 million in annual congressional appropriations help promote democracy worldwide.
“But now it’s clear we’re entering a new period for democracy,” he said. “There’s really no large competing idea.”
And what of the biggest democracy vacuum of all, the one-party state of China, where a democracy movement was crushed, with hundreds killed, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989?
“I don’t think China will be able to avoid this trend,” Gershman said. “It all amounts to a question of human dignity. And that’s universal.”