Tahrir Square
Tahrir Square Photo by AP
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Four months after the start of upheavals in the Arab world it is possible to do an interim evaluation, and it is far from encouraging. In two countries, Tunisia and Egypt, tyrannical rulers were overthrown, but even there the process of democratization is far from guaranteed. In Syria the Alawite dictatorship of the Assad regime has, for the time being, managed to survive, and it has no problem shooting demonstrators and killing them, sending tanks to subdue city after city. In Libya the rebels are unable to overcome Gadhafi, despite the NATO air strikes. In Yemen the situation is far from clear, but the local strongman remains in power. In Bahrain the minority Sunni-ruled regime continues to oppress the Shi'ite majority, with the support of the Saudi military; the latest development there is the arrest of doctors and nurses who treated injured protesters.

This is not an Arab version of the revolutions in eastern Europe in 1989. What has happened to date is that only relatively moderate regimes, like those of Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, fell, while Arab regimes lacking any moral or political qualms about murdering their own people, are holding on. Tahrir Square may have become a symbol, but to a great extent it is a hollow symbol. In the words of the poet, the sun rose and the butcher kept on killing.

For now, control in Egypt is in the hands of a military sect that has essentially ruled the country since 1952. In Egypt there is no figure of a reformer from above, like Mikhail Gorbachev or revolutionaries and dissidents like Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel. The demonstrators on Facebook and Twitter are no alternative for the many years of work (and risks ) of a group of dissidents like that of Solidarity in Poland or Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia.

Amr Moussa, who apparently has an excellent chance of being elected president (if elections are actually held ) is not exactly a dissident who dedicated his life to opposing the Mubarak regime: he is an apparatchik of the old regime with an anti-Western Nasserist ideological outlook. In matters of democracy, social justice or equality he has never expressed his views, and if he is elected, it will be through the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and/or the ruling military sect. The pogroms targeting the Kopts last week suggest that the Muslim-Christian brotherhood that was evident during the demonstrations failed to overcome the old religious hostilities. The danger of anarchy is also on the horizon. Not exactly the dawn of a new day.

The excitement in the West, and in Israel too, at the sight of the mass demonstrations led by educated, courageous youth is understandable: there has never been something like this in the Arab world, which has known military revolutions and populist dictatorships but never popular uprisings to overthrow tyrants. However, it turns out that without a strong infrastructure of civil society, demonstrations are no alternative to the establishment of institutions, which is essential for the consolidation of democracy. The vengeance being directed against the Mubarak family and its close associates is a cheap populist alternative to democracy.

And if this is the case in Egypt it is obvious that even if the dictatorships in Libya and Yemen are overthrown, it is not reasonable that we will see a stable democracy established in their stead. The lessons of eastern Europe show that in the absence of a tradition of civil society and pluralism, the old despotism may be replaced by another form of authoritarian regime, as has happened in Russia and Ukraine, not to mention the Central Asian republics.

The person who actually realized this is U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Following a frustrating meeting with some of the activists of Tahrir Square several weeks ago she said that sometimes it turns out that those who begin the revolution are not always those who in the end climb to power. Even if more regimes collapse the path to democracy in the Arab world is still a bumpy one.