by Joel Brinkley
Free and fair elections in Tunisia, Muammar el-Qaddafi's demise.
All the fomentation and death brought by the Arab Spring have produced two new states that stand as shining examples -- not just for the still-struggling people of Syria and Yemen, but also for China, Belarus, Cambodia, Zimbabwe and countless other unyielding authoritarian states.
"You have won your revolution," President Obama proclaimed with a big smile just after Qaddafi's death. And nearly 90 percent of Tunisians voted, visibly proud to be leading the way for the Arab world. Heady stuff.
But now is also a time to regard these two states with circumspection. Recent history demonstrates that the road from exultant revolution to functioning democracy is littered with obstacles -- and not just for the reasons most people assume.
Yes, of course, there's always the danger that a fundamentalist Islamic party will take advantage of uncertainty and disorder to seize power, as happened in Iran three decades ago. Tunisia's Islamic Renaissance party won the most votes on Sunday, and its smiling leaders are offering flowery assurances that they will champion democracy and pluralism -- assertions that warrant cautious skepticism.
In any case, even if they're telling the truth, consider how hard it is to turn an autocratic dictatorship into a free and open state. Recent examples make this plain. My favorite is Ukraine.
Not so long ago, back in the mid-2000s, President
One U.S. government contractor, the
Well, just like in Libya and Tunisia, the demonstrators in Ukraine succeeded. They called it the Orange Revolution. President
After the cheers faded and the balloons floated away, when Yushchenko looked out the palace window he saw a newly energized people. Their American coaches, as well as Western media, had showed them what was possible. They held sky-high-expectations -- just like Tunisia today. A poll this year showed more than 80 percent of Tunisians now expect dramatic improvements in their standard of living.
But the truth was, Ukraine had none of the instruments of a free state. No civil society, no groups like Freedom House, the
Nor were there any government agencies whose officers had been concerned with anything other than keeping the dictator in power and stuffing their pockets full of cash, in part because Ukraine also lacked the most important element of a democratic state -- a free press.
Looking at Tunisia and Libya right now, are they any better equipped to host a democracy? Probably not, and in Ukraine that proved to be a fatal problem.
Yushchenko simply could not meet his people's expectations. He had none of the tools. And after the Bush administration paid for the revolution, Washington largely dropped interest.
Soon enough, Yushchenko was voted out, and guess who is president of Ukraine right now: Yanukovych, the man thrown from office in the Orange Revolution, the man who just put his most important political opponent, former Prime Minister
Already, however, we can see one important difference between Ukraine and Libya, at least. Ukraine had a longtime jealous patron, Russia. But Libya had no friends, none at all. Remember, even the
Obama already appears to be using a smarter approach than Bush did. He seems to realize that America must remain engaged. A few days ago, Secretary of State
Just as the West joined forces through
"Libya and Tunisia: Obstacles on the Road to Democracy"