The backlash against democracy

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By Carl Gershman
Saturday, March 12, 2011

A specter is haunting the world's remaining dictators - the specter of the Jasmine Revolution.

In Zimbabwe, 46 people were arrested and charged with treason for attending a lecture on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In Equatorial Guinea, a state radio broadcaster was forced off the air and suspended just for mentioning events in Libya. Two independent U.N. experts report a "dramatic surge" in executions in Iran, where opposition leaders Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and their wives have been placed under house arrest for supporting a demonstration in solidarity with the Middle East uprisings. In China, the harshest crackdown in recent years is underway in response to an anonymous online call for a "jasmine revolution." Five young activists have been arrested in Azerbaijan for using Facebook to announce a protest. Even the world's harshest tyrannies are taking preemptive measures to further tighten controls, with Burma reviving its National Intelligence Bureau and North Korea setting up riot squads.

The autocrats' fear of revolutionary contagion is not irrational. The late Samuel P. Huntington identified "snowballing" as a key factor in the "third wave" of democratization that swept Latin America and parts of Asia and Africa and culminated in the Central European revolutions of 1989. The more recent "color revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine alarmed Russia and other autocracies, which quickly passed laws repressing civil society and political opposition.

The fear of contagion is even greater today because the Middle East uprisings resonate powerfully outside the West. For one thing, they came entirely from within, in reaction to abuses such as massive corruption, dysfunctional and unaccountable government, and the gross human rights violations that are the norm in authoritarian countries. The fact that the revolutions occurred in the Arab Middle East, the region least touched by democracy's third wave, carries a special message to people facing obstacles that have long seemed insurmountable.

This was a point underlined by the exiled Cambodian dissident Sam Rainsy, who said to me during a recent visit to Washington: "They showed that it can be done. Now people have the idea that change is possible, and that's the most important thing of all."

Not least, the Middle East activists made powerful use of the Internet and social networks, which have spread to all regions, albeit unevenly. These technologies were used not just for popular mobilization but also for raising public consciousness. The protests in Tunisia would not have erupted the way they did after street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire if public opinion had not already been inflamed by widespread knowledge of official corruption and abuse.

Autocratic regimes will employ all the means at their disposal to prevent the use of the Internet by their opponents. But they cannot change the underlying reality, which is that there is a sharpening contradiction between closed and repressive states and increasingly networked, informed and awakened populations, which is in itself creating a revolutionary crisis of the political order.

While in time this crisis could lead to a fourth wave of democratic expansion, in the short term we can expect a new backlash against popular pressures for democratic change. Responding to this backlash - with a much more focused effort to defend human rights and aid the work of democracy activists, for example - should be high on the agenda of the United States and other democracies. Special attention should also be given to supporting Internet freedom, including helping groups gain secure and free access to the Internet, protect themselves against malware attacks, network with counterparts in other countries, and connect with donors and technology specialists who can address their specific needs.

China presents the greatest challenge, and not just because it employs more than 50,000 cyber-police to enforce the Great Firewall of Internet censorship and its budget for internal state security now exceeds its military spending. With its growing wealth and power, China has become, in the words of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, "a blood transfusion machine for other dictatorships" and is, therefore, "a key link" in the global fight for democracy.

And then there is Libya. Just as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt gave hope to democrats in other countries, Moammar Gaddafi's survival would signal to autocrats that violent resistance is the wisest path. This would shift the momentum in the Middle East and greatly spur the new backlash. It's a prospect that should haunt the world's democrats even as it reassures autocrats that this moment may not be as ominous as it first appeared.

The writer is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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