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By Stephen R. Grand, Brookings Institution
Text: arab spring/20140423_understanding_tahrir_transcript
Review by David T. Jones

On 23 April, Stephen Grand, Brookings Institution nonresident Senior Fellow for the Middle East, spoke at a Brookings book launch for his new volume Understanding Tahrir Square.  In contrast to many observers of the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath, Grand was optimistic, albeit cautiously so.

Although the presentation was designed as a “buy the book and find out all about it” event, Grand discussed his study and its findings in rough detail.  Essentially, he reviewed the transition to democracy of “third wave democratizers”—those countries seeking democracy between the mid-70s and the end of the 20th century.  He selected four geographic regions (former East Bloc; Muslim majority countries in Asia; Latin America; and Sub-Saharan Africa) identifying four countries in each region:  two successes and two “less so.”  He then examines these case studies and teases out lessons for the Arab Spring.

First, he identifies himself as “a rare optimist” noting that transitions to democracy usually go slowly—sometimes very slowly, even taking generations to succeed.  Consequently, his optimism is conditioned on creating “right conditions” requiring the United States to “exercise thoughtful leadership in the region”—and not let the area fall into the clutches of Saudis/Iranians as well as “tamping down” regional political polarization.

Second, Grand believes movement to democracy in the Middle East is “a solid one” while noting that the Arab world is really the last global region to democratize.  He cites Freedom House’s timeline that in 25 years, 80 countries have moved toward democracy.  Essentially, popular attitudes globally have moved toward democracy and away from totalitarianism (despite a slight “political recession” associated with the economic recession).

Third, he professes himself “convinced” that it will take a long political struggle to make democracy work in the Middle East.  In his view, democracy must arise from below; arise from critical mass of citizens, regardless of ideology, convinced that democracy has a value of its own.  Doing so requires forcing political authorities to relinquish power and become convinced that adhering to constitutions that are more than “flowery ornamentation on paper” is necessary for their survival.

Grand, however, predicts “more Tahrir Squares, not less.”  And those are the parameters of his optimism.

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