Symbolizing the End of Authoritarianism

[imText1]It has surely been impossible to ignore the protests which have broken out in many corners of the Middle East and North Africa during the first quarter of 2011.

Although most experts agreed that the dictatorial systems of governance in places like Egypt and Tunisia were unsustainable in the long term, few predicted that they would fall in the short- or medium-term, and certainly not as fast as they have.

So, to discuss the surprisingly rapid pace of democratization in the region and what it may mean for world history, not to mention the future of North Korea, The Daily NK interviewed Professor Seo Jeong Min of Hanguk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

Professor Seo has spent a total of 12 years accumulating an in-depth understanding of the region, alongside five years as Cairo correspondent for the Joongang Ilbo, one of South Korea’s big three daily newspapers.

– What’s your overall impression of the Middle East and North African democratization movements?

Simply put, it’s an unexpected revolution. The Arab world’s dictatorships had maintained their grip on the levers of power while the people’s lives were quite poor; they lived in relatively serious deprivation, finding jobs for the young was a chronic problem etc, etc. So there was pent up revolutionary power, but we couldn’t have predicted that these democratic revolutions would progress so fast. They were unexpected revolutions; but I want to emphasize that this new, 21st Century revolutionary model is a groundbreaking example.

– Why do you say so?

In just four days of protests in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, President Ben Ali was overthrown and fled the country, and then, after 30 years in power, Egypt’s Mubarak decided to step down after just 18 days.

The democratization movements which achieved the overthrow of these dictatorial regimes had no “leader”. The countless revolutions that we ordinarily remember have overwhelmingly had a charismatic leader or were led by a group. But these Middle East democratization movements have not had that kind of leader, and that is a unique point. Therefore, I emphasized that they are a new model of 21st Century revolution.

It has been emphasized in the media a good few times already; the effect of “new media” on these democratization movements has been huge. Through Twitter, Facebook, and of course satellite TV, the people of the Middle East could see the state of the Tunisian democratization movement 24/7. In particular, the broadcaster “Al-Jazeera Live” had a big influence, relaying live footage of the Tunisian democratization movement for four straight days to all areas. Social networking services and satellite TV have given confidence to those people who were not able to stand together and resist authoritarianism, and changed their awareness.

– So why were there so many authoritarian Middle East and North African dictatorships for so long?

The Arab world is a place of male-oriented culture, authoritarianism and dependency on weapons and military force. For a long time, these areas have been tribal, and I think dictatorship was able to thrive against this backdrop. These tribes lived by hunting and farming. For the domestication of animals and hunting, they used sharp blades and force. Furthermore, to these people, oases and water were “life”. They were people prepared to fight to defend those things against other tribes. Therefore, male-oriented authoritarianism developed. However, if we look at it the other way, it means they also easily surrendered to more powerful forces. Thus, the Arab peoples were extremely frightened of challenging their authoritarian systems. That is how these dictatorship regimes could survive for such a long time.

– Please give us a case of ongoing democratization in one of the Middle East dictatorships.

In the case of Yemen, President Saleh has watched the protests grow and now vowed to abandon family succession and give up power in 2013. I think this is an even more groundbreaking event than our country’s June Democracy Movement. In Saudi Arabia too, protests and a petition demanding change from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy are emerging.

– What’s the outlook for Middle East democratization?

Democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have been successful, but that’s just one step towards becoming a settled democracy. There will be many conflicts and errors going forward. Particularly, the people of these places have less political awareness than us, and their level of economic development is also not great. Given that the creation of jobs is not easy, the settling of a democracy should be seen as a long term project.

However, the spread of democratization movements into all corners of the Middle East is an established fact. These are revolutions which are changing the Middle Eastern peoples’ fundamental awareness, and I believe the impact of this will be dramatic. It will become a monument to the end of authoritarianism, passing through the Middle East to bring an end to authoritarianism worldwide.

– Can the winds of change blow as far as North Korea?

I think the Middle Eastern democratization movements offer a starting point for rocking the North Korean system. A thought revolution is spreading, a paradigm shift foretelling of the end of authoritarianism in human history. North Korea cannot avoid being a part of this.

We know that North Korea has already prohibited those of its people who were sent to Liyba from returning. It fears the spread of revolution by word-of-mouth. Of course North Korea has almost non-existent internet and social networking infrastructure, and because of this it will be hard for democratization movements to spread like in the Middle East, but the North Korean authorities are worried, which itself tells of the start of change.