European and American policymakers worried about further chaos and confusion in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab states should take a close look at the way years of authoritarian rule gave way to democracy in three leading Asian nations: Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea.
All three Asian countries went through long and difficult transition periods following the fall of entrenched, corrupt, dictators. There were riots, uncertainty and pain. The economy suffered. The army watched warily as protests spread.
Today the three countries are functioning democracies, allies of the West and active participants in Asia’s rise. Historical parallels are never perfect of course; Arab countries, with their mix of disgruntled young people yearning for change, under-developed or non-existent political parties and well-organised Islamists present a complex challenge to Europe and America.
Not surprisingly, ever since Tunisia’s “jasmine revolution” – and with the Iranian “Islamic revolution” circa 1979 on their minds – policymakers in Brussels and Washington have been struggling to balance their support for change and democracy with a desire for stability and continuity in the region.
There is justified concern that anti-government protests could be hijacked by Islamists. But also unjustified assertions that the region is not “ready for democracy” and that chaos will be destructive and long-enduring. The West’s mixed message risks feeding a perception on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere that Europe and the US are putting stability ahead of democratic ideals and leaving hopes of nurturing peaceful, gradual change in the hands of an old guard which has little reason to speed up the process.
Such sentiments do not augur well for future relations between the West and the Arab world. Better and wiser therefore to give a supportive hand, sound advice and good counsel to the real democrats than to throw a lifeline to those clinging to power.
For inspiration, Arab and Western policymakers should read up on recent Indonesian history and especially the country’s successful –albeit sometimes painful – transformation to democracy following the fall of President Suharto in 1998.
Also worth a read is the success of the “People Power movement” in the Philippines in 1986 which drove President Ferdinand Marcos into exile and installed Corazon Aquino as the new president. In South Korea, meanwhile, the democratic uprising of June 1987 represented a nation-wide uprising and the main goal was to make the authorities to give green light to democratisation.
Despite their flaws, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea are proof that countries can change direction, peoples’ aspirations for democracy can be met and that chaos can give way to peace and development.
For lessons on managing change and transformation, perhaps Arab and Western policymakers should stopping fretting about Iran and start consulting some of Asia’s new democracies.