The Arab world is changing.It began in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010 when a simple street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the alleged mistreatment that was inflicted on him by a government official.
Few would have guessed at that time that Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation would eventually spark a socio-political revolution that would sweep across the Middle East and North Africa; bringing down numerous dictators and autocratic regimes, many of whom had been in power for decades.
Indeed, some observers have been stunned by the speed, force and scale of the revolution, which continues to reverberate around the region today.
The fall of the autocratic regimes – particularly in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – has also led many political analysts to label the Arab Spring as the start of a new fourth wave of democracy.
This fourth wave would follow Samuel P. Huntington’s historical analysis of the global democratic process. According to Huntington, the adoption of democracy happened in three waves: The first wave began in the early 19th century across North America and Western Europe in the aftermath of the American and French revolutions, the second began after World War II, and the third began in the mid-1970s – starting in Portugal and Spain before spreading across Latin America, Asia, Central Europe and Africa.
In each of these waves, there was a sudden upturn in countries that began to adopt democratic ideals, leading to a political transition towards democracy. The third wave of democracy, for example, saw the number of democratic nations triple from 39 in 1974 to 123 in 2005.
Interestingly enough, the Arab world was the only major region in the world that the third wave had bypassed completely, leading some commentators to coin the phrase “Arab exceptionalism” to characterise this phenomenon.
Despite this quirk, it appears as though the Arab world is finally ready to embrace democracy. However, it may be a little bit premature to declare the Arab Spring as the start of the fourth wave of democracy. After all, it took Huntington nearly 15 years in order to confidently identify the third wave of democracy and now apparently, it has taken less than nine months for other political scientists to declare that the fourth wave of democracy had begun.
The problem for the Arab world stems from the fact that political change need not necessarily mean democratic change. Henry Kissinger for example is sceptical of the type of change in the Arab World. “I don’t think the Arab Spring is necessarily a democratic manifestation, I think it is a populist manifestation,” Kissinger told the Wall Street Journal.
Historically, many countries, particularly in Latin America and Africa during the initial stages of the third stage, also faced the problem whereby political upheaval only led to another autocratic regime coming into power. Admittedly, the cold war was a major factor during that time, as governments were essentially being propped up by the US based purely on the fact that they weren’t communists.
However, a different but equally powerful factor could lead to another “meet the old boss, same as the new boss” scenario today. Countries experiencing political change tend to face many socio-economic problems during their early stages, such as poverty and unemployment. One solution most countries would then take would be to turn to advanced economies such as the US or the European Union for economic advice or financial aid.
But can and should the Arab world really turn to the so-called bastions of democracy anymore for help?
Read the full story by Raymond Tham at EconomyWatch: Premature Speculation: The Arab Spring Cannot Be Considered As Democracy’s Fourth Wave – Yet.