The Global Democratic Revolution: A New Stage


by Martin Shaw

The popular risings in the Arab world belong to a wider historical process of worldwide democratic advance. But the disastrous events of the post-9/11 decade have made it far slower and more conflictual than was needed.

The epic events across the Arab world in the first months of 2011, diverse and many-sided as they are, can be understood as a single episode: the latest phase in the worldwide democratic revolution which has been remaking the world since the 1980s.

The process that began in Tunisia in mid-December 2010 and led to the overthrow of the country’s president a month later, achieved a similar outcome in Egypt following over two weeks of mass mobilisations there, and has spread from Yemen in the east to Morocco in the west.

True, the very different experiences of Arab countries – including the continuing strife in Libya, the protests in Bahrain, and the elite concessions in Jordan and Saudi Arabia – underline how variegated the process is and how uncertain the precise outcome in each case. And it is too early to say whether the changes in Tunisia and Egypt (and the results elsewhere) will lead to the creation of recognisably democratic states, let alone what the regional and global impact of the events will be.

But everywhere, the unifying thread is opposition to authoritarianism and aspiration to democratic rule; and the sense of a psychological break with the dictatorial past is unmistakable.

The immense movement in Egypt in particular – the middle-east’s largest and most influential country – has opened the space for politics, in a way that has ramifications far beyond the region. It is notable in this respect that authoritarian regimes from Tehran to Beijing have curtailed access to information about the Egyptian and other dramas. Their fear is a tribute to the achievement of this “Arab awakening”, however provisional the achievement remains in practical terms.   

Democracy and revolution

It is salutary to recall that even in 1960, parliamentary democracy was mostly confined to the core western societies of northwestern Europe, north America, and Australasia – though notably too in various southern countries (India, Sri Lanka, and Chile, for example).

In 1910, democracy was still fully to be established even in this core – there were limits in several places on universal male suffrage, and female suffrage still had to be fought for (with New Zealand and Australia pioneers in this regard). The struggle for democracy was intertwined with social campaigns by labour, women and (in India) for national independence. What is now taken for granted is a hard-won and historically recent achievement.

Moreover, the inter-war period saw grave setbacks for democracy, as Europe succumbed to fascist and Stalinist totalitarianism: only the Allied victory in the second world war “normalised” it once more in its northern heartlands. But the cold-war’s entrenchment in the late 1940s and 1950s made democratic outcomes the exception.

In eastern Europe, Soviet rule extinguished the seeds of pluralism that had briefly emerged in (for example) Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia; in Africa, military rule became the norm in several post-colonial independent states; in Asia, revolutions won via Mao Zedong’s “barrel of a gun” turned into dictatorships; in the middle east too, military coups installed authoritarian regimes, and monarchical states learned how to rely on force to secure their power. Everywhere outside the Soviet “sphere of influence”, the United States viewed dictatorships as pillars against communism.

The longer historical sweep of democracy’s evolution and setbacks also reveals that the modern experience of revolution has so often oscillated between democracy and dictatorship. France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Iran in 1979 – these are but the major landmarks of a familiar trajectory where spontaneous mass movements sparked by a democratic impulse  gradually fissured, polarised, and eventually captured by dictatorial tendencies.

The direction of travel here was systematised in the speeches and writings of Stalin and Mao (and indeed “theorised” by their intellectual bedfellows to give them a wider legitimacy), to an extent that the very idea of revolution seemed to contain within it an endorsement of violent and oppressive rule.

A different kind of revolution  

Yet in parallel to the cold war’s larger story of superpower politics, a new kind of democratic revolution which consciously rejected the model and the temptations of authoritarian “capture” has also taken root. The popular upsurges in East Germany in 1953, and in Hungary and Poland in 1956, sought an end to dictatorship and to establish a political space of genuine freedom. In 1968, a reform process in Czechoslovakia mushroomed into a society-wide movement for change.

Also in 1968, student movements pioneered new ideas of participatory democracy which challenged the rigidities of western parliamentary systems as well as authoritarian regimes. The protests of that year reverberated across the cold-war world – from Washington, Berlin and Paris to Karachi, Tokyo and Mexico City. Their aftershocks were felt until at least the mid-1970s.  

These movements were mostly unsuccessful in achieving fundamental political change. In the east, the Red Army was the ultimate bulwark of Stalinist order, with Moscow’s local factotums only too willing to keep tight order; in the west, the US could rely on an array of military-authoritarian rulers to obstruct change.

There was an exception to the pattern in southern Europe, where – in Portugal (after the revolution of 1974), Greece (after the military junta of 1967-74), and Spain (after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975) – a revived democracy was consolidated through integration into European institutions.  

In the later stages of the cold war, movements emerged that anticipated the landslide to come. The discrediting of military rule in Latin America led to a wave of democratisation in the 1980s, even as vicious counterinsurgency wars were waged in the isthmus. The “people power” insurgency in the Philippines in 1986 that unseated Ferdinand Marcos was another harbinger. In 1980-81 in Poland, the Solidarity trade union had created a new model of mass mobilisation that sought to bypass rather than directly challenge the regime. It was crushed by the coup of December 1981, but was another of the seeds of great convulsion of 1989 that swept east-central Europe.

1989: a global shift begins

In a global perspective, 1989 is a double-sided moment: both a paradigmatic case of “people power” driving permanent political change, and (in China) of the violent reassertion of dictatorship. But it also anticipated further democratic upheavals, and thus became part of the wider historical unfolding of democracy of which the Arab world’s revolt is the latest example.

In that historic year, a serendipitous international conjuncture – democratic consolidation and integration in western Europe, Soviet reform under Mikhail Gorbachev (who crucially indicated that he would no longer use his military to block change in Moscow’s zone) – enabled the success of the “velvet” revolutions.

In this respect, it is right to emphasise the importance of “the pull of the west” in 1989, and that this “is weaker and more complex” in the case of Egypt. But the rejection of Soviet rule in 1989 was also the trigger of a wave of worldwide democratic upheavals in US-allied states in the first half of the 1990s – which notably removed long-standing authoritarian regimes in South Korea, South Africa, Indonesia.

The “Arab democratic revolution”  can be seen to fit this pattern, and thus link in to the broader post-1989 trend. But the fact that it was so long “delayed” also raises the question of why, a degree of local change notwithstanding, the worldwide pattern of upheaval had been slowing down.  

After 9/11: a failed substitutionism

The answer to this questions is complex, but has a lot to do with both unresolved conflicts in the middle-east (the major regional exception to democratisation until now) and the United States’s response to 9/11.

The effect of the US’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and (to a greater extent) Iraq, the intensification of Washington’s tensions with Iran, and its role in the Israel-Palestine conflict has been to ensure that the strategic interests of the main players have stifled the possibility of democratic change. This is most clearly seen in Lebanon and Gaza, where calculations of power and interest vis-a-vis Hizbollah and Hamas have taken precedence over encouragement of even limited democratic progress.

At the same time, 9/11 hugely boosted the most anti-democratic forces in the Arab and Muslim worlds. A small but significant element among young Muslims was attracted to the spectacular violence of al-Qaida, and governments everywhere sought to tighten security in ways that curtailed liberties.

George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq fused all these tendencies. The assault was wrapped in the language of “democracy promotion”, in practice implying that  military power – not democratic organisation – was the route to “regime change”. In effect this was a massive substitution of armed force for proper democratic action, which left little room for peaceful contributions by the Iraqis themselves. Instead, the invasion was the catalyst for a bloody, locally genocidal war between armed Iraqi factions which set back the cause of democratic change – in the wider region as well as Iraq.

It is only after Bush became history and the “war on terror” became less dominant (even if it still being waged under Barack Obama) that the possibility of real democratic change have reopened, both in the middle east and in countries relatively removed from the disasters of the Bush years.

The “colour” revolutions, and contradiction

Even when the obstacles in the way of democratic revolution are removed, however, the two decades since the end of the cold war show that the consolidation of democracy once it is established can be very difficult.

Democracy in the west itself is in many respects incomplete, limited, and subject to great pressure from corporate and other interests. The examples are legion, from the United States to Britain (whose coalition government is after less than a year in power imposing destructive policies for which it gained no electoral mandate) and Italy (whose authoritarian-populist ruler Silvio Berlusconi embodies a dangerous fusion of media control, political power, and undermining of the law).

But it is in countries with a more recent experience of democracy that the problems of consolidation are usually more acute. They face the daunting challenge of maintaining the dynamic of change and creating democratic institutions – after the old ruler has gone but when many of his allies, including the army, remain in the shadows. This is why Marxists called for the formation of a revolutionary vanguard, partly by recruiting the rank-and-file infantry to weaken the military and enable a seizure of power in the name of the people.

Such vanguards are no longer in fashion in the Facebook age, and their historical record is not good. But the absence of some such dynamic and unifying force makes division and perhaps loss of impetus among the original revolutionary impetus (as in Georgia after 2003 and Ukraine after 2004, for example) difficult to avoid.

A core problem is that even if electoral democracy is instituted, rulers –  whether old ones under new democratic labels, or new ones thrown up by street protest – will still try to cling to power by authoritarian means, not least by rigging elections. Such manipulation can be achieved even in western countries by heavy manipulation of the media (Berlusconi again) or skulduggery in the voting process (Florida, 2000). Elsewhere, the right result is secured by intimidation, violence, and control over the voting process and the count (as, recently, in Iran and the Ivory Coast). The latter is a new norm in a democratising world.

A rigged election can itself be a catalyst for revolt: the cycle becoming a “revlection” (Timothy Garton Ash coined the term to describe what happened when Slobodan Milosevic fixed the Serbian election in 2000).

Then there are repeated democratic revolutions, as successive rulers fall prey to corruption and authoritarianism (Georgia’s experience, with the post-Soviet leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia giving way to Eduard Shevardnadze, and the latter being overthrown in the uprising that brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power – though the ingredients of democracy in some of these changes need to be examined).

If this sounds bad, there is worse. For a process of nationalist-led democratisation in the republics of former Yugoslavia contributed to the disastrous genocidal wars of the 1990s; United Nations-sponsored “power-sharing” and democratisation in Rwanda helped lead to the genocide of 1994; elections have been catalysts of violence in Iraq; and the manipulation of Kenya’s election in 2008 triggered a wave of genocidal violence in which thousands died and hundreds of thousands were expelled. Zimbabwe and (again) the Ivory Coast offer their own contributions to the link between elections and violence.  Democratic change, clearly, is a high-risk business.  

An unfinished process

Thus, the worldwide democratic revolution faces many problems. It is also greatly limited still in geographical scope. China is the biggest question. How long can the Chinese Communist Party stall real democratic change, and is it conceivable that it can continue to implement reforms without provoking even greater mass action than in Tiananmen Square in 1989? Egypt suggests that there is a time-limit to authoritarian rule, and China’s deep social tensions and economic inequality make the prospect of another mass uprising at least feasible.

But the revolution is unfinished in a more profound sense, to do with qualitative depth. Free speech and fair elections remain compelling aspirations for much of the world. But they are only the beginnings of change: both because more is needed to guarantee democratic accountability, and because major inequalities in a country make social democracy essential for political democracy to realise its full potential.

But democratic revolution – as seen in the Arab risings – is also a contagion that spreads from country to country, and becomes regional, even global. It also increasingly takes place under the gaze of global media, with more and more citizens having access to information about what is happening as it happens. As much as in Europe in 1989, the middle-east movements are both national and international at their very heart.

In this sense, the worldwide pattern of (national) democratic revolutions and changes is also part of a global (as well as international) trend. Democratisation reflects the growing global consciousness of interdependence and shared values. It poses a huge double-challenge: of consolidating democracy and rights worldwide, and of creating institutions which can create joined-up democracy on regional and global scales. This is the test for the next decades, one that events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere bring into even sharper focus.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy

About the Author:

Martin Shaw is professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at Roehampton University, London, and an honorary research professor of international relations  at the University of Sussex. Among his books are War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society; The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq; and What is Genocide?