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Recent triumphs do not mean democracy is inevitable

Published Oct. 16, 2005

The goings on in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union - or South Africa for that matter - might give you the idea that Western-style democracy is the irresistible force of the late 20th century. Even before Mikhail Gorbachev called last week for multiparty democracy in Ronald Reagan's old "evil empire," otherwise serious people were waxing euphoric over how the good guys had vanquished the forces of darkness.

One of them, a State Department analyst, went so far as to predict that the the triumph of the system we know and love would bring about "the end of history" as we know it by doing away with human strife and harmful international competition.

Well, that's a comforting bit of millennialism that fits in nicely with the philosophy of wishful thinking now dominant in Washington - no more of this gloom about the decline of the West or the fall of great powers.

You could almost be excused for having such sweet dreams even without the help of prohibited substances. But that wouldn't make you any less wrong.

To wrap a little perspective around all this talk about the inevitability of democracy, consider this: There isn't a single leader in the Arab world today who got his job in a freely contested democratic election. Not one.

The world's most populous country, China, is backing away from democracy as fast as its aging leaders can push it without alienating the Western governments that give it money, credits or lucrative trade.

The entirety of Africa is almost devoid of anything resembling real democracy.

The two biggest democracies in South America, Argentina and Brazil, are economic basket cases that could very well slide into the kind of anarchy that will bring out the ambitious army colonels yet again.

You're probably more aware of the situations in China, Africa and South America, so let's look more closely here at the Arab world.

Hosni Mubarak, the man most often cited as the best example of a democratic leader among the Arabs, became president of Egypt automatically in 1981 as the vice president who succeeded the murdered Anwar Sadat. He's been confirmed in two referendums since then, but - and this is the crucial part - without opposition. Mubarak's was the only name on the ballot.

Zine Abedine Ben Ali, the president of Tunisia, another Arab country often singled out for its democratic tendencies, got there by overthrowing President Habib Bourguiba.

King Hussein of Jordan may seem like a well-spoken and reasonable sort here in the United States (his fourth wife is an American, after all), but it's useful to remind ourselves from time to time that he's a hereditary monarch who's only beginning to open up what has been an essentially undemocratic regime.

And when you start considering the Arab countries that make no pretense of democratic rule, you come to the likes of Syria, Libya and Iraq - among the most brutal, authoritarian regimes you'll find anywhere.

No, in all 17 of the countries that consider themselves Arab - and that doesn't include Iran by the way - there isn't a single government that practices democracy in any way we would recognize. And there isn't likely to be anytime soon.

A meeting between foreign ministers of the European Community and the Arab League last December is probably as good an example as any of how the concept of people power plays in most Arab regimes. In the middle of a long discussion about how to improve relations between the Europeans and Arabs, it was announced that Nicolae Ceausescu, the hated dictator of Communist Romania, had been overthrown. The European delegates broke into spontaneous cheers and applause. The Arab representatives greeted the news with cold silence.

To be fair, it should be pointed out that more than half of the Arab leaders now in power got there because of assassination or coup

d'etat. They know that their successors will likely take power the same way. It's also a fair supposition that most of the Arab delegates at that Paris meeting wouldn't have been in the room if the people of their countries were allowed to choose their leaders freely.

Arab leaders themselves like to explain the lack of Western-style democracy in their countries by saying that it doesn't fit in with traditional Islamic societies. They like to bring up Lebanon as an example of how things can go wrong even though Lebanon was never what you'd call a traditional Islamic country. The sheiks who rule the Persian Gulf states often point out that their oil-rich regimes provide their subjects with more security and social justice than any Western-style democracy could.

Whether or not these explanations ring true, the evidence out there suggests that democracy is no more inevitable a historic force than the various forms of dictatorship - from military to proletarian. In the Arab world, Islamic fundamentalism is far more likely to shape the future than Western-style democracy.

But if there's a lesson to be learned from the Arabs, the Chinese or South Americans, it's that this precious thing we call democracy is a very fragile plant. It needs to be carefully tended and nurtured with infinite patience and hope. Unlike the weed, it doesn't thrive on neglect.

As for the hopes of universal democracy in South Africa, there's certainly a lot of euphoria these days, and hopes are high that its black majority will finally get the political rights they deserve. It's still not clear, however, what kind of government Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress will set up when they eventually start running the country.

The politics Mandela and the ANC used to espouse was one-party Marxism-Leninism. These days they talk mainly about racial justice and soft-pedal the radical ideology. That's a step in the right direction but still no assurance that democracy is on the way.