It has become common in the West to express remorse or pessimism about the course of events in the Arab world since the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions a year ago. Tunisia, in fact, does not present a cause for general pessimism. Egypt’s xenophobic Islamism is alarming, but it is too early to judge that revolution’s outcome. In any event, the Arab revolutions never were conceived to conform to the West’s expectations, goals, or principles. In settings long influenced by nationalism and political Islam, the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, and Syrian revolutions seek justice, the dispatch of autocrats, a reduction of corruption, the restoration of dignity and equality to ordinary citizens, and the development of new constitutional experiments involving rights and accountability.
These experiments must unfold in divided societies with weak economies and unresolved””perhaps never to be resolved””tensions between mosque and state. Arab democrats who struggle in these settings are not seeking to imitate Western liberalism; they are reinterpreting it, as Turkey has done successfully, and as India’s British-educated independence leaders once did. In sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America, democratic change in low and middle-income countries has evolved as a synthesis of local and global ideas, lurching through disruptions, failures, and recoveries. The Arab awakening is no longer an adventure park for bored emirs or a televised spectacle that inspires Western viewers. But its transformational power has not yet ebbed, and the liberalism within it is far from expired.