If the revolutions roiling the Arab world have had one quality, it’s been speed. After decades of stasis and stagnation, events began to move fast — incredibly fast. On Dec. 17, a Tunisian fruit vendor took his own life. On Jan. 15, a Tunisian dictator fled the country to save himself. The Egyptian people took to the streets. Eighteen days later Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was cast from power. The tremors quickly spread across the region, as strongmen in Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere began to shake.
It reminded me of Timothy Garten Ash’s observation, after the fall of the Berlin Wall: “In Poland, democratization took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks, in Czechoslovakia ten days, and in Romania ten hours.”
But therein lies a crucial difference, too. We cannot talk about any of these countries in democratic terms — yet. The Egyptian people are still fighting to throw off the vestiges of the old regime to build their democracy on a solid footing. The Egyptian military has already revealed itself to be less than a reliable guardian of the democracy the people hope to achieve. In Tunisia, political parties are struggling to ensure that the processes that are put in place allow for genuine elections. The opposition in Yemen has yet to negotiate the exit of its own dictator. And elsewhere the picture is more bleak. Libya increasingly appears to have descended into a stalemate, with the possibility of partition between the western and eastern halves of the country. The popular rebellions in Bahrain and Jordan look to have stalled. In Syria, where opposition is still building, the regime is quickly becoming more ruthless.
For all the talk of Arab Spring, we should not expect these dramatic shifts to end as quickly as they began. By their very nature, the building will take longer than the toppling. The forces that have been unleashed are going to resonate for years, and the pressure on the Arab autocrats who weather this season will rise.
I speculated a few weeks ago that this Arab Spring might be considered the Fourth Wave, a large-scale movement of nondemocratic regimes toward democracy. If so, it’s worth looking closely at the regimes that made this transition during the Third Wave. They were a hodgepodge of one-party states, juntas and personalized dictatorships. And, as the late political scientist Samuel Huntington pointed out, 23 of the 29 countries that democratized during the Third Wave had some previous experience with democracy. That offers an important note of caution: Sometimes the most successful democratic transitions come on the second try.
This isn’t an argument that these Arab states must lapse back into authoritarianism before they reemerge as genuine democracies. But it is also improbable that all of these countries will move in lock step toward that democratic future. For some, the Arab Spring may amount to that first try. Since January, the short view has been intoxicatingly hopeful — and it is quite possible that a handful of these states will successfully manage the transition. But we shouldn’t blind ourselves to the long view. For democracies, sometimes the second try is the charm.