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The Arabs and the Democratic Choice

NEW DELHI – Egypt’s fate has had the world riveted in recent days to newspapers and televisions, as the unfolding consequences of Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” seem to portend a wave like the liberal revolutions of 1848 for the Arab world. Amateur historians ask breathlessly whether this could be the year of decisive change in the Middle East, the year when regime after regime falls prey to rising discontent with authoritarian rulers who have failed to deliver decent lives to their people. Who could be next: Yemen? Libya? Sudan? Even Jordan?

Watching these events from afar, I find it difficult to escape the conclusion that it is not authoritarian rule per se that is being challenged in the streets, much as we democrats would like to believe otherwise; rather, authoritarian rule has simply failed to deliver the goods. Dictatorial rule has been accepted in each of these countries for decades. What the protestors were shouting for was not just freedom but dignity – the dignity that comes from having a job worth doing, enough food to eat, and the hope of a better life for their children.

The biggest failures of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia may not have been their repressive politics but their failed economics. If young men had not been unemployed and struggling to make ends meet, feed themselves, and be able to offer a home to the young women they desire, they would not be risking their lives and freedom calling for the overthrow of their governments.

And yet one is tempted to ask the question: would a different political approach have avoided regime collapse? In other words, could democracy have provided a sufficient outlet for the grievances of jobless and frustrated youth?