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In my last year of university I enrolled in a module entitled: Opposition and Participation in the Middle East. My first seminar started on January 14th 2011, which happened to coincide with the departure of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who fled Tunisia during a popular uprising. We were meant to discuss the taming of political opposition in liberal authoritarian regimes, and how political participation was defined in the Middle East. Our professor was excited by recent events and dedicated 15 minutes of every seminar to discussion on the current affairs. He was aware that what was originally going to be taught was no longer a reality on the ground.

There was of course confusion about what the uprising in Tunisia meant for the Middle East, whether this was a one off event, or an Arab awakening. However, events would move faster than anyone could have anticipated. When Egypt -the most populace country in the Middle East- ignited, political scientists knew we were witnessing a rare political phenomenon. As a political science student specialising in the Middle East, I was looking for answers from experts in my field, however the majority didn’t want to even start to understand – they would rather not jump to conclusions and told us all to remain calm. And who could blame them?

Enter Samuel P. Huntington, finally someone who could bring order to the disorientating events. His book: ‘The third wave of Democratization’ gave more insight than any political commentator could at the time. Huntington’s thesis of Democratization waves was first presented to the world in the 1990s. According to Huntington, a wave of Democratization qualifies when transitions to democracy outnumber those to authoritarian rule. Since the 19th century, the data shows there to have been three major waves of democratization – when plotted on a graph, the peaks and troughs present Huntington’s thesis elegantly.

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 The first wave of Democratization-in the 19th century- is encapsulated by the granting of suffrage to white males in America; events such as the French revolution solidify the progress of the wave throughout Europe. The second wave of Democratization-in the 20th century-is triggered by allied victory in the Second World War; energised by the process of decolonisation and the collapse of the axis powers.

The trigger for the legendary third wave was the Portuguese Carnation revolution of 1974 – followed shortly by democratic transitions in Latin America. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s also yielded further democratic transitions. The third wave eventually introduced over 100 new democracies to the world. The manner in which the third wave unleashed itself, and the global reaction it induced, is comparable to the speed and subsequent euphoria that was felt globally when Tunisia and Egypt fell. A democratic wave does not randomly choose its victim. In all three waves the process of democratic diffusion would be triggered by an idiosyncratic event, for example the collapse of The Soviet Union or Tunisian revolution. The idiosyncratic event is then followed shortly by a snowball of similar events in similar countries – with cable and the internet being an obvious catalyst.

The shared culture, history, and economics that link a region are also the vehicle for democratic diffusion. It is these links that allow democracy to be diffused rapidly in a somewhat predictive manner. The fourth wave of Democratization would look no different to the past three and would also be exclusively regional in its early stages. The discovery of the three waves by Samuel P. Huntington evolved from rigorous historical analysis. It is risky to predict or label a wave before it has fully developed. However, Huntington’s extensive research has provided us with the shared attributes of all three waves and therefore a framework for detecting further waves. It should be possible, then, through comparative analysis, to catch a wave in its embryonic stages.

However bleak the cosmetics of the situation seem today, historical analysis of similar waves of democratization have taught us that the process is a laborious one. The results were almost never immediate – they certainly won’t be in this instance – and were always met initially with disappointment. Is it possible that we are witnessing the first stage of democracy’s fourth wave? The democratic conversation has already been set in motion. Once democracy consolidates itself in Tunisia and Egypt – which many believe to have happened – the conversation will become a permanent one. The legitimacy of Middle Eastern leaders can no longer be founded on providing security. For example, the North African countries were the first to fall, and it is also in North Africa where leaders sourced their legitimacy solely on providing security – internally and externally. The Gulf States on the other hand rely on economic legitimacy. For example, before Saudi Arabia’s ‘Day of Rage’ billions of dollars were injected into welfare, eventually buying legitimacy, and evading any significant protests.

It is evident that some countries will be more resistant to the democratic reverberations than others. Political legitimacy in North Africa has now been redefined to be sourced from the people. This decision was also made by the people, in a drama that shook the world. It could be that the decision for democratic transition in the Gulf may actually come as a gift from its leaders, a regime transformation that is shaped by the political context of its regional surroundings-in an orderly fashion-further down the line.

Huntington reminds us constantly, that History is not unidirectional, but seems to have taken a two-step forward one-step back approach. Although it should be possible to predict a wave of democratization, the ramifications of such a process cannot be predicted. Transitions to democracy do not automatically increase the capacity for a government to provide economic and social security. In countries like Egypt the results are crippling rather than liberating; this comes as no surprise when decades of neglected social cleavages are released all at once.
BY: Adam Isseyegh