Established democracies face a summer of despair

By Tim Sullivan

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Aug. 13 2011 11:25 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2011 file photo, people from various trade unions attend a rally to protest against high food prices, unemployment and corruption, near the Indian Parliament, in New Delhi. The hopes of the Arab Spring have, for some of the world's most established democracies, given way to a Summer of Despair. As grass-roots protests aimed at toppling authoritarian rulers sweep the Middle East, dysfunction has become the norm in much of the democratic world, where governments struggle with bankruptcy, violence and political paralysis from Washington to Rome to New Delhi.

Mustafa Quraishi, File, Associated Press

The hopes of the Arab Spring have, for some of the world's most established democracies, given way to a Summer of Despair.

Riots in Britain. Crippling European debt burdens from Greece to Spain. In India, a deluge of corruption scandals that have crippled the world's largest democracy as it faces widespread malnutrition and a desperate need for land reform.

And let President Barack Obama sum up the recent scene in a United States burdened by a cruel economy, immense debts and often-surreal political bickering that nearly led the nation into default:

"Lord knows we still have a dysfunctional political system in Washington," he said at a recent fundraiser.

As grass-roots protests aimed at toppling authoritarian rulers sweep the Middle East, dysfunction has become the norm in much of the democratic world, where governments struggle with bankruptcy, violence and political paralysis from Washington to Rome to New Delhi.

Democracy, of course, is a messy business. When everyone has the freedom to speak their mind, politics is naturally a struggle of conflicting views.

But it's been a particularly messy year. Few were surprised when protests turned violent in Greece, where street battles have a long history. But no one expected the widespread eruption of violence that swept Britain, much of it apparently aimless looting and mayhem.

These days, the democratic bulwarks provide little but glaring contrast to those demanding freedom in the Arab world.

"It seems that just as those nations demand the tools of democracy, we are finding them rusting and blunt in our hands," said Britain's Guardian newspaper.

The year began with protests that ended the 23-year, iron-fisted dictatorship of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Days later, as the contagion of hope spread to Egypt, Tahrir Square began filling with demonstrators, eventually leading to the downfall of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. From there, the cries for freedom kept going: Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria and even — very quietly and very briefly — to China.

While the fight against authoritarian rule continues in the Arab World, the early hopes of its spring have not always come true. Some dictators — in Libya, Bahrain and Syria, most notably — have turned to openly brutal repression to try to quash the opposition. Other countries are mired in political bickering.

But as thousands of protesters still risk their lives to demand democracy across the Middle East, the world's most established democracies are struggling with their worst year in a generation.

"There's a feeling (in the West) that something has gone fundamentally wrong," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "At least in places like Egypt and Tunisia, there's a sense of 'We're all in this together.'"

"Arabs have realized they don't have to wait for the U.S. (or other powers to bring about change). ... They are the ones who can take matters into their own hands and say: 'We've had enough, we're not going to wait anymore,'" he said.

Eventually, it could even be enough to reshape global politics; if a resurgent Arab world was able to at least partially displace the now-dominant democracies.

Certainly the London riots, where many people were simply looking for something to steal, seemed to herald a culture with deep problems.

While some of the violence occurred in poor, troubled neighborhoods, the accused in Britain include a university graduate, a teenage ballerina and a college student from a prosperous commuter town.

It's been enough to lead to gloating elsewhere in the world.

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