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Winning the Transition

WASHINGTON, DC – Is the Arab Spring turning into a gloomy autumn? With brutal crackdowns in Syria, a bloody civil war in Libya, and Yemen teetering on the brink of chaos, the number of skeptics is growing. Although Egypt and Tunisia’s pro-democracy movements achieved rapid regime change, uncertainties remain in those countries, too. After a brief period of hope, many observers now wonder whether the region is capable of producing viable, and economically vibrant, democracies.

Revolutions and their aftermaths, of course, are always fluid and fickle times, and the outcome is often perched on a knife’s edge. Bridging the vast gap between high expectations and the reality of limited budgets and capabilities is a test in itself. Redressing past injustice and building an economy that offers opportunity to all are major challenges as well, fraught with volatility, uncertainty, and the dangers of political opportunism.

But transitions are also times of great opportunity. In the 1990’s, I was among those Indonesians who demanded and celebrated the departure of our own autocrat, Suharto, and I joined the new government when he left. Many observers predicted that Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, would be unable to sustain democracy and would ultimately decline into chaos. The task ahead of us was daunting. But we proved the skeptics wrong, and learned some fundamental lessons.

Perhaps most importantly, we learned that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for democratization. Each of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa will face unique challenges, which will have to be addressed on their own terms. Even so, they all must make a real and symbolic break with the past. The new authorities must send strong signals that the old ways are finished.