This weekend marked the one year anniversary of the self-immolation of Tunisian protestor Mohammed Bouazizi, credited with triggering what we now refer to as the “Arab Spring,” as well as the passing of dissident playwright and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who led the bloodless “Velvet Revolution,” freeing Czechoslovakia from Soviet domination.
Havel served multiple stints in communist prisons before leading hundreds of thousands of protesters in a 1989 peaceful uprising that ended Soviet-backed rule. Perhaps more importantly he led his country through its democratic dissolution into The Czech Republic and Slovakia, serving as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1993 and The Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.
Since Tunisia erupted a year ago, protestors have overthrown dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen while Syria spirals into civil war. And while initiated by dreams of democracy, none of these countries can be considered democratic as of yet. Democracy is far more than the overthrow of an illegitimate and repressive regime or even the holding of elections. More to the point, recent elections in both Tunisia and Egypt in which radical Islamic political parties won the most support illustrate the vast difference between the transitions to democracy in Czechoslovakia and the Arab World.
A country that elects a repressive regime does not become democratic by mere virtue of holding an election. If the regime denies women their human rights, punishes people of less and other faiths, and imposes law based on its strict interpretation of religious law, that is not a democracy. To hold otherwise demeans and dilutes the meaning of the concept.
My hope for each of these transitional Arab states is to find a leader like Vaclav Havel. But with each radical Islamic electoral victory, the likelihood of such a person breaking though becomes less and less.