Today's inspiring but faltering Middle Eastern and North African uprisings have awakened the appetite for democracy across the region without however assuring its satisfaction. They have ushered in an Arab Spring that, however, rather than leading to a summer flowering of democracy look like they might instead lead straight to an Arab winter of anarchy, reaction and tribal and/or religious war.
Even the naïve cheerleaders for the Arab Spring at the New York Times are having second thoughts: "In the past weeks," a front page article published on May 22 worries, "the specter of divisions -- religion in Egypt, fundamentalism in Tunisia, sect in Syria and Bahrain, clan in Libya -- has threatened uprisings that once seemed to promise to resolve questions that have vexed the Arab world since the colonialism era." Christian Copts and Muslims are again putting knives in the backs of those they only recently had pledged to cover.
Those of us who warned from the outset that the road to democracy would be tortuous and that there would be no "democratic dominoes" in the region (see my Huffington Post blog "No Democratic Dominoes" written right after the Tahrir Square victories) were spurned as killjoys, or worse, but it is hardly a surprise that the road to democracy is hard rather than easy and that liberty cannot be wrung from history's grasp with a week of or two of brave demonstrations. Overthrowing a tyrant is one thing, establishing democracy another -- as is evident from the history of democratic revolutions from Paris in 1789 to Moscow in 1917 or Budapest and Warsaw in 1956.
In the Middle East and North Africa, conditions vary radically from one country to another, and little of the hard patient foundational work on civil society, education and citizenship necessary to creating a working democracy has been done -- or can be done one struggling society at a time. Even in the most promising revolutions (Tunisia and Egypt) let alone in those societies still held by stubborn tyrants (Syria and Libya but also Yemen and Bahrain not to speak of Saudi Arabia), the path to democracy is anything but clear.
Yet my spirit too was aroused by the passion for liberty that in just a weekend of exuberance overspread the region, and it is time now to get beyond the caveats and cautions and consider how a problematic and demanding democratic project in the MENA might be helped forward. My frame is the reality of interdependence: after all, the first presentiments of democracy were widely shared across frontiers (thus the all-Arab spring spreading virally across the whole region). Should not the work to turn short term revolutions into enduring democracies also be shared? Democracy is likely to succeed in one Arab country in rebellion only if it succeeds in all. In place of the old Pan-Arabic movement what is needed is a new pan-democratic movement.
The last time Arab nations tried to work in concert rather than alone was in the 1950s when a pan-Arabist ideology was promoted by Egypt's revolutionary leader Nasser in a bold but quickly failed experiment aimed at merging Syria and Egypt in a "United Arab Republic." Since that time we have seen only coalitions of autocrats; just recently a proposal was made for a pan-monarchical alliance to prop up the old kingdoms and sheikdoms and protect them from the Arab Spring.
Under these daunting circumstances, why not a pan-Democratic movement? Let it encompass the ancient unifying spirit of the Mediterranean and unite old European democracies and new emerging Arab democracies. And since democracy is first of all not about elections and a constitution but about civil society and citizens, let the instrument of cooperation be a Mediterranean civil society parliament including representatives from every Arab country, whether liberated or not, as well as from Spain, France, Italy, Turkey and others willing to contribute. Let the currency of exchange be -- no, not NATO war planes or oil contracts but civic leadership and financial assistance by those who have money and leadership to offer, whether Arab or European.
The pan-Democratic civic parliament could be a moving body, meeting in Cairo and then Istanbul, in Barcelona and then in Tunis. And because it would comprise civic not government representatives, it could also invite participants from nations still in the grip of tyranny -- not to create divisive "governments in exile" but to help establish civic cadres that in time could help generate real democracy in places like Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Its business would be an agenda for democracy, and the development of pan-Arabic civic, educational, cultural and in time party institutions.
The weakness of individual societies, some of which were never even integral nations in the first place, along with the inherent difficulties of trying to find a safe path through chaos to freedom, suggest that democracy can be successfully won in the MENA region only through cooperation among aspiring free peoples -- through cross-border, interdependent democracy --building from the bottom up, rather than on a top-down, one by one basis. A Mediterranean pan-Democratic civic parliament would be a start.
If Europe takes the billions being spent on NATO's efforts (way beyond the U.N. mandate to protect civilians) to overthrow Gaddafi and puts them into a pan-Democratic Movement purse to sustain cooperative civil society efforts among and within aspiring democratic countries, if it proffers patient assistance on education, civic infrastructure, open web development and the building of civic and party institutions, the Middle East and North Africa might have a chance at getting from spring to a freedom summer. That is what George Soros's remarkable Open Society Institute did in Eastern Europe following the fall of the wall -- including the building of a Central European University devoted to a cross-border Eastern European open society.
The spirit of Tahrir Square still lives, but the courageous women and men who took the risks cannot prevail without significant cross-border cooperation and civic foundation-building assistance. They can still achieve what they set out to do, but only if they work together around the Mediterranean. Democracy is not a national project but a human project. If aspiring Arab democrats figure this out, they will not only follow but lead the West in securing real freedom not just for a few but for all.