Nothing is inevitable, though. African countries such as Botswana, Ghana, and Mali -- and India, for that matter -- have attained democracy despite poverty, low literacy rates, and social divisions roughly similar to those that exist in the Arab world. Nor does experience suggest that Islamist victories are unavoidable -- or at least, are permanent. A study of 21 Islamic countries conducted by scholars Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi found that Islamist parties fare far more poorly than popularly believed and gain their highest vote total in the first election.
Kurzman and Naqvi describe a common political arc for Islamist parties. They often emerge from the oppression of the previous regime with a reputation for honesty and courage, and attract many voters who are not zealots. Then when they fail to produce tangible results -- when, to put it starkly, Islam turns out not to be the answer -- many voters turn elsewhere. As the authors put it, "when Muslims are given the opportunity to vote freely for Islamic parties, they have tended not to do so."
There are plenty of caveats, of course. Islamist parties do better on average in Arab than non-Arab lands, and in any event, this process takes time, often requiring second and third free elections. But time is also part of the antidote to extremism. As Bush noted in his speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, "The daily work of democracy itself is the path of progress. It teaches cooperation, the free exchange of ideas, and the peaceful resolution of differences." So can Islamist parties learn to play along? Kurzman and Naqvi say yes: "[T]he Islamic parties' overall trend toward publicly embracing global norms of democracy and human rights is significant.… The experience of political participation, both in government and in civil society, has changed their outlooks in ways that they did not imagine when they started down the path of electoral politics."
Again, stripping away long-standing and deeply rooted authoritarian systems is a long, dangerous, and violent process. If disorder and economic collapse are the result, we may see the Russian experience repeated: Democracy is equated with chaos; a Vladimir Putin emerges. As we see now in Russia, though, with the surprisingly poor showing of Putin's ruling party in the recent parliamentary elections and the mass protests in Moscow, this too does not appear to last forever.
As the old Arab regimes have found out the hard way during the past year, authoritarian rule is inherently unstable. Simply put, people want more. "[T]he regime is branded as an expedient, something temporary and transitional needed to meet the exigencies of the time," Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan wrote about China's communist system. "Authoritarian regimes in this sense are not forever. For all their diversity and longevity, they live under the shadow of the future, vulnerable to existential challenges that mature democratic systems do not face."
The new governments of the Middle East will need to win the loyalties of populations that seek more dignity, more freedom from oppression, and better lives. Arab culture will prove an obstacle to moving forward: Both the treatment of women and the widespread conspiracy theories blaming Jews and others for national failures will undermine a population's ability to take responsibility for its own future. Years of danger lie ahead, and there will surely be very uneven patterns of democratization -- as has been the case, after all, not only in Africa and Latin America, but even in Europe. But the sour "analysis" that the Arab revolts will lead only, inevitably, and permanently to disaster is based in neither experience nor scholarship.
What should the United States do? Batten down the hatches, for one thing. Who can say what Egypt's or Libya's political situation will be in two years, or four? Prepare to protect U.S. interests and America's allies if, during this long and uneven process, they are threatened. In addition, what America should do is help: help the liberals, the constitutionalists, the democrats, and the human rights advocates, whose enemies -- in the mosques or streets or barracks -- will have plenty of outside support.
You might call it adopting a "forward strategy of freedom," requiring, as Bush said, "persistence and energy and idealism." We will not determine the outcome of these struggles, but we can do our utmost to help the good guys win, and win sooner.