The Long Road to Democracy

Comparisons to the 'winds of change' in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 are premature. The past few weeks have so far resulted only in the swapping of domestic elites.

The oppressive nature of the autocratic and police-state regimes that have existed for years in many countries in the Middle East makes it natural to sympathize with the popular uprisings that have been sweeping the region of late. Who can resist getting caught up in the enthusiasm of citizens who peacefully demonstrate and proclaim that they will accept nothing less than meaningful change - either within the system or of the system itself?

Caught off guard by the force of events in the initial few weeks, the United States and Europe have since regained their bearings, and are now clearly offering political support for the changes that have occurred in Tunisia and Egypt.

Beyond the tendency to identify with the oppressed in their struggle to be free, additional factors are driving the support of Western nations for the significant developments that are under way. At the most basic level, it is their steadfast belief that there is nothing better than a society that embraces democracy. Moreover, the "democratic peace" theory has reinforced the assumption that democracies don't fight each other, with the implication being that they tend to have a common outlook on foreign and security policies. But just how tenable are these assumptions?

In its enthusiasm to promote democracy through majority rule, the West has forgotten how long the road to democratization can really be. Democracy is about far more than the majority determining its own destiny. Putting democratic procedures in place does not ensure democracy, and can even backfire, ultimately having the opposite effect. A society can be truly democratic only when its population embraces the concepts of tolerance and the protection of minority rights. This necessitates an entire set of institutions, such as independent media, human rights organizations, and checks and balances among political institutions on whose basis a culture of democracy can be gradually established. It took Western Europe more than 200 years to emerge as a region of stable democracies.

Furthermore, if all a society has done is to adopt formal procedures like free, fair and equal elections, it might wake up one day - as happened in 1994 in Algeria, in 2006 in the Palestinian Authority, and in 2009 in Lebanon - with political forces in power that are utterly undemocratic and explicitly anti-Western.

Indeed young democracies can even be aggressive. History and empirical research shows that such democracies, with their typically weak institutions and a poorly defined sense of national identity, tend to display more belligerent attitudes toward their neighbors than their predecessors. In such new and fragile regimes, leaders are more inclined to initiate conflicts with neighboring states in order to consolidate domestic political support. So the transformation to democracy in the Middle East could lead - in the short term at least - to a more fragile regional situation, rather than increased stability.

There is no doubt that the West should do whatever it can to help countries like Tunisia and Egypt on their path to democracy. But it would be naive to believe that they or other states in the Arab world that succeed in overcoming their dictatorial regimes can leapfrog the long and arduous process of establishing a culture of democracy. Moreover, Western Europe and the United States need to take into account that even democracies have their own national agendas.

So even if genuine democracies do begin to emerge in the Middle East, there is no guarantee that they will support U.S. and EU policies, or adopt friendly attitudes toward other democratic countries in the region. The opposite might be the case. Indeed, we can point to democratic states - Turkey is perhaps the best example - that have turned their backs on the West because of their differing national interests.

Therefore, democracy is not a guarantor of stability, nor will Middle East democracies necessarily be "natural allies" of the U.S. and the EU, and certainly not of Israel.

A final word of caution regarding the events that have taken place so far in Tunis and Cairo, and could very well be replicated in other states as well: Superficial comparisons to the "winds of change" that wafted through Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 are premature. The past few weeks have so far resulted only in the swapping of domestic elites. We have not yet come anywhere near more fundamental change of and within these political regimes.

Dr. Carlo Masala holds the chair for international relations at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich.

Dr. Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Both are members of the Expert Advisory Group for Euro-Mediterranean affairs, funded by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.