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A Long But Not Impossible March Toward The End Of Tyranny

After Latin America and Europe, the Middle East and Africa want to bury their dictatorships. But it is an arduous and often twisted process of political revolution.

 April 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad
April 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad
Jacques Hubert-Rodier


PARIS — After the Arab Spring, some say the "African Spring" is coming, and there is some real evidence to support it. Citizens of Burkina Faso recently ousted President Blaise Compaore, who, 20 years after taking command of the country through a coup d'etat, hoped to maintain power by changing the constitution.

Also in Ivory Coast, the people refused to let President Laurent Gbagbo stay in power after he lost the 2010 election.

So the question returns: Will the 21st century see the end of tyranny?

We recall that many welcomed the fall of Saddam Hussein, glad to see the Baghdad tyrant deposed after years of a brutal reign. But 11 years later, the picture from Iraq is grim: Almost 150,000 civilians have been killed, while the country has sunk into chaos, with territory increasingly divided into opposing entities.

The "creative chaos" theory of democracies advocated by American neo-conservatives is a resounding and terrible failure. Thirteen years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan is not better off, and civil war marches on.

Of course, in these two cases — despite the absence of similarities between Baghdad's secular Ba'ath Party and the Taliban's Islamic law in Kabul — the armies of the U.S. and its allies did overthrow the regimes. But unlike with Germany and Japan after World War II, the U.S. not only failed to reorganize these countries with the kind of model democracies then-President George W. Bush envisioned, but wasn't even able to establish the rule of law.

Paradoxically, the uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Yemen led to similar results: chaotic situations or, as is the case in Egypt, the return to a military regime after the interlude of an anachronistic Islamist power. In Syria, the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, which started in March 2011 after peaceful protests, has led to a complex civil war that has already killed some 300,000 people.

Tunisia, the only country in the region to have avoided this turmoil so far, has just held elections recognized as democratic. But surrounded by unruly neighbors such as Libya and Algeria, its complicated transition is far from over. It must consider a national union between the secular movement of Nidaa Tounes, the winner of the vote, and the Islamic Ennahda Movement. The aim is to avoid a polarization like in Egypt between the Muslim Brotherhood, secularist reformers and the military.

Moving forward at all cost

Almost everywhere in northwest Africa and the Middle East, the time for disappointment has come. And yet neither the threat of a step backwards nor the risk of a new tyrant or military regime has prevented the world from moving forward.

In Latin America, dictatorships in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Central America have given way to democratic regimes; while post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe has seen an unstoppable desire for democratization and the establishmest of the rule of law.

The winds are now reaching Asia. The Hong Kong protests against Beijing's intrusion could be part of the same movement towards democratization, or at least towards a state that has more respect for individuals. According to the very incomplete figures of the American organization Freedom in the World, 122 countries (of 195) can be considered electoral democracies, which amounts to 63% of the total. In 1989, this figure stood at 69 out of 167, or 41%.

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Umbrella Revolution protests in Hong Kong on Oct. 10 2014 — Photo: Pasu Au Yeung

Any step backwards could have serious consequences. The beginning of the 21st century has been marked by an awakening of civil societies. And despite a bleak outlook for the Arab world, this awakening "can't suddenly disappear," writes Frédéric Charillon, head of the the Institute of Strategic Research of the French Ministry of Defense (IRSEM). But this "democratic determination coming from the bottom" could "clash with the authoritarian tendencies from above that are for now clearly regaining control."

The return of tyranny, whether calm or violent, cannot be a solution to the state of chaos certain countries suffer. For several reasons. On the one hand, the revolutionary cycles are more or less long. It must be remembered that 1789 France did not establish democracy overnight, and periods of authoritarianism were necessary. Europe did not become a paradise just after the 1848 revolutions. In turn, the Middle East and northwest Africa, as well as a part of Sub-Saharan Africa, have entered long periods of transition.

On the other hand, the tyrannies and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century were themselves at the origins of the chaos slowing down the development of societies. As reflected by poor American management in Iraq and Afghanistan, any transition is essentially fragile. But authoritarianism uses force to smother the demands of society. That doesn't mean these demands are bound to disappear. Communist China is also dealing with protest movements, whose effects are presumably weakened by strong growth. But until when?

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