Democracy doesn’t happen in a day

Source: The Freedom Collection / By Lindsay Lloyd

Recent news reports have caused many to pronounce that the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring are over.  Indeed, the developments of the last few weeks are troubling; as Egypt’s military has reasserted itself as a political force.  Elsewhere in the region, we see continuing bloodshed in Syria, the challenges of holding Libya’s upcoming elections (where there is no tradition of democracy or civil society), and Tunisia’s ongoing struggles with rooting out corruption, securing freedom of expression, and defining the proper role of religion in society.

There should be little surprise with these struggles to construct lasting democratic structures.  In many ways, these difficulties in the Arab World mirror those of Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Freedom House’s new Nations in Transit 2012 report documents that even under the best of circumstances, transitioning from authoritarianism is messy, lengthy, and subject to reversals.

Much of the Nations in Transit report makes for grim reading.  Twenty-three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, progress is uneven at best.  Of the 29 countries studied, Freedom House categorizes just 8 as consolidated democracies.  Six are categorized as semi-consolidated democracies, 5 as transitional or hybrid governments, 2 as semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes, and 8 as consolidated authoritarian regimes.

Much of the region is backsliding.  Hungary’s score has fallen to where it now risks falling out of the consolidated democracies category, due to declines in areas such as judicial and media independence.  Likewise, Ukraine experienced what Freedom House calls a sharp, accelerating, multiyear decline, with setbacks in governance, the media, the electoral process, and the judiciary.

There are a handful of bright spots – Armenia, Croatia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Moldova, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia all improved their scores.  Despite its troubles, the European Union remains a powerful force for democratic consolidation in much of the region.  Overall, EU members and prospective members have fared better than countries without a clear path to membership.

Even so, as the late Czech President Vaclav Havel noted in his Freedom Collection interview, democracy building takes time.  “I think that it is easier and faster to arrange for free elections, to abolish censorship, to establish democratic institutions, to support  the formation of political parties, the right to assemble, freedom of speech –  those are all things that can be achieved relatively quickly. What cannot be achieved quickly is a transformation of mentality,” he said.

What are the lessons for the Middle East?  First, the path to democracy is not a one-way street.  We should expect setbacks and reversals.  Second, the role of consolidated democracies matters – Western assistance, while not a panacea, is nonetheless vital in building democratic institutions.  And finally, Central and Eastern Europe’s experience should remind us democracy doesn’t happen in a day – it takes years to develop a democratic culture.