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Twilight of the autocrats

india Updated: Jan 28, 2011 21:05 IST

The overthrow of a government in Tunisia, and the street protests and self-immolation from Algeria to Yemen, indicate that an impossibility may be taking place: Arabs are taking to the street. The Arab world has been the black hole of democracy. No other part of the world has been as resistant to regime change in favour of representative government than the band of nations stretching from Morocco to Oman. Latin America, once the continent of the junta, is a democratic redoubt today. Most of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, regions that gave the world noxious dictators like Mobuto Sese Seko and Ferdinand Marcos, have experienced waves of political reform. The Arab world has been noticeable for its seeming imperviousness to such explosions of democracy and its inability to even generate indigenous and isolated liberal revolutions. Instead the Arabs are ruled by motley crew of petro-monarchies, thinly-veiled military dictatorships and one-party oligopolies.

All bad things must come to an end. The extent of the ripple effect of Tunisia’s ‘jasmine revolution’ remains unclear — including what sort of governmental structure will arise in Tunisia itself. However, it is now clear that the once monolithic firmament that was Arabian polity having been cracked will henceforth be vulnerable to the power of the protest.

What US military power has struggled to create in Iraq is now being accomplished by the simplest of things: food prices, Facebook and a fed-up public. The question is how long the façade will continue and what will replace it over the coming decades. Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, will now be crucial to the future of the jasmine revolution. The present regime has beaten off, and quite savagely, what seemed to be far more potent threats before including sustained Islamicist terror campaigns. The street protestors remain relatively moderate in size and the loyalty of the security services shows no signs of strain. But countries like Jordan and Algeria are already offering political concessions to their people in an attempt to contain public disaffection.

Arab democracy can also expect only lukewarm support from the West: in most of these countries the most likely winner of a free and fair election would be distastefully illiberal groups like the ultraconservative Muslim Brotherhood. What is clear is that the long-standing assumption that nothing can shake Arab authoritarianism has been consigned to the dustbin. The question of what will follow has been added to the great questions of the international system.