In 2011, the young men and women who surged into the squares of Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, Sana’a and Benghazi gave a new meaning to the term “Arab street”. Long used to denote a sullen, inchoate, unfocused rage, it came to mean a yearning for democracy, for a political form long identified with the western world alone.
Will this quest for democracy be deepened, in 2012 and beyond, by the establishment of representative government, a free press, and an independent judiciary? Or aborted by new forms of authoritarianism or a return to older rivalries?
The transition will depend in part on the models the protesters seek to uphold. Rather than looking west, Arab democrats should study the experience of the newer democracies that lie to their east. Consider India, where every general election is the largest expression of the democratic franchise in human history; where the military is kept firmly away from politics; and where people of all faiths have equal rights under the constitution and in law.
Even more relevant is Bangladesh, which now has an average annual growth rate close to 5 per cent. Its military has retreated to the barracks, the Islam on display is more ecumenical than literalist, and there is a vigorous civil society.
Can a culture steeped in Islam respect women’s rights? Can a polity dominated by the army break free of it? Can a desperately poor country assure decent education and health care as well as economic growth? Arab protesters might find answers to these questions in a country to their east that does not yet appear to be on their horizon. Continue reading »