A long, fragile democratic trend

“Be careful what you wish for” comes to mind when reviewing the waves of public protest and revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Long-established dictatorships are collapsing.

This includes Libya, where coordinated combat by rebel ground forces and NATO air power has overthrown a brutal dictatorship. Moammar Gadhafi’s displayed corpse leaves no doubt his four-decade bloody tyranny is over. Good riddance to this terrorist.

However, remember that no war has ever been won from the air alone. This point is especially important regarding developments in Libya, but also applies to turmoil in the Islamic world generally. Gadhafi’s corrupt, repressive and dangerous government has been succeeded by a shaky, still-unclear coalition of Islamic fundamentalist factions.

Religious fundamentalism does not automatically translate into political violence, but the danger is there. The uncertainty following the end of autocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia underscores the unpredictability of such revolutions. Given this aftermath of rejection of repression, the frustration felt by ardent democracy advocates is understandable.

In this context, the brilliant scholarship on democracy by Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington is especially instructive. His best-known book is the influential “Clash of Civilizations,” published in 1996, which argues that the contemporary world is defined by a variety of increasingly intense conflicts between fundamentally different cultures.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the consequent struggle with Islamic-based terrorism, and the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq all seemed to provide evidence for his thesis.

However, another book by Huntington is much more useful in addressing the current turmoil. “The Third Wave — Democratization in the Late 20th Century,” published in 1991, argues that there has been a very long-term trend over two centuries of broad public movement toward democracy, interrupted by resurgence of dictatorship.

The first wave was spurred by the American and French revolutions, and reflected by extension of the right to vote in Great Britain, Switzerland and other countries. Huntington calculates that the first great wave of democratic reform extended from the 1820s to the 1920s.

The years after World War I brought anti-democratic reaction featuring varieties of communism and fascism. This in part reflected the unprecedented casualties and costs of that total war.

Huntington argues the second democratic wave began in the midst of World War II and continued into the 1960s. Representation was spurred by defeat of totalitarian Axis powers and encouraged by post-war economic developments.

However, especially in Latin America, strong reactions developed against democratic institutions and toward authoritarian governments. Many new nations which had been European colonies became dictatorships.

The third wave toward democratic government began in 1974 with the collapse of military dictatorships in Portugal and Greece. Over the next 15 years, democracy was established in more than 30 countries, and the Soviet bloc began to collapse.

Sam Huntington demonstrates that democracy and rule of law are powerful long-term trends, but easily derailed over the shorter term.

U.S. leaders should give the Islamic democracies a chance. Our multiple advantages include expanding global investment capital, improved service organizations and involvement of women.

However, assuming revolution automatically means democracy only continues our old national naivete.

Scripps Howard News Service commentator Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.

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