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Originally published in the McGill Daily
“There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom,” Barack Obama said hours after Hosni Mubarak resigned. Those were the same words Martin Luther King Jr. spoke upon the birth of an independent Ghana. That was – like today – a time of great upheaval. The peoples of Africa had spent decades trying to liberate themselves from underneath the boots of Western empires. Then post-war Europe retreated, and they were finally free. Two decades later, another wave of euphoria swept the world. Eastern Europeans clamoured for freedom, tearing down the walls dividing the world between Marxism and liberalism.
It was then that Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, famously proclaimed that history had ended. The end of history did not mean that the world would come to a grinding halt, but that the ideological struggle throughout human history to establish the best form of human government had ended. Western liberal democracy had triumphed. Today, few would argue against the claim that people have a universal right to freedom and that they should be governed by consent. Admittedly, the claim sounds generic, if not meaningless – but that is only a testament to how deeply liberal democratic discourse has crept into the political lexicon around the world.
The euphoria for liberal democracy, however, has subsided as illiberal democracy takes hold in places like Russia, Zimbabwe, and Iran. The states have crushed the rule of law and eroded basic human rights. Worse, democracy has seemingly failed to penetrate China and much of the Arab world, where autocrats cling to power with the help of brutal security forces. The greatest blow to liberal democracy came from its loudest proponent, President George W. Bush. His “freedom agenda” confused the laudable goal of promoting liberal democracy with that of invading – without provocation – sovereign states. As a result, democracy was sullied. It certainly didn’t help that although Fukuyama opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he had signed a letter in 1997 – along with architects of the war, including Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz – urging Bill Clinton to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime.
What then was to become of liberal democracy? Historian Robert Kagan, a fellow signatory to that infamous letter, informed us of “the return of history and the end of dreams” in a 2007 essay and 2008 book. He argued that liberal democracy would not, after all triumph. Autocracy and Islamism had replaced Marxism as the main ideological opponents to the liberal democratic order.
Then, Tunisia suddenly erupted. Tunisians came out into the streets in droves to oust a decades-old regime. Egyptians followed. Mubarak refused to budge, so they too would not budge from Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square. They defeated the Egyptian security state. Like fire, the spirit of liberation has spread across the Arab world: protesters are calling for democracy in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen. In Libya, protesters are braving death to confront a brutal, maniacal dictator – and they’re succeeding.
Whether these movements ultimately overthrow the Arab world’s autocrats remains an open-ended question. An ancillary question is whether repressive, illiberal democracies-in-name will replace them. Detractors will likely point out that 84 per cent of Egyptians favour the death penalty for apostates – a sign that illiberal democracy will follow. Yet, 90 per cent of Egyptians also believe in freedom of religion. The contradictory responses reveal still unformed views about what their democracy will look like.
But whatever the outcome, what is clear is that – by risking their lives for the simple idea that people should govern themselves and be free – millions of souls across the Arab world have cried out for freedom. History may not yet have come to a halt, but the potent appeal of liberal democracy pushes it ever closer.