On 25th April 1974 a military coup by young officers in Portugal followed by a popular uprising brought to an end the authoritarian regime of Salazar established in 1928. The so-called “carnation revolution” was largely peaceful and two years later ended-up establishing a democracy in Portugal. It is often seen as the forerunner experience of other forthcoming peaceful regime changes brought by popular uprisings, namely in Eastern Europe. To understand whether it can be also a reference for peaceful democratic revolutions in the Arab world one needs to consider the similarities and differences with Portugal.
Portugal was a secular but deeply religious (Catholic) country where the church was a strong supporter of the old regime. The country was also caught by surprise, without political parties (with the exception of the clandestine communist party that had been the only serious opposition to the old regime). The country was a member of NATO but for two years lived in danger of a communist takeover. Western powers helped the creation of new democratic political parties and pressured the Soviet Union not to try doing in Portugal what it had done in Eastern Europe. At the time the danger for Portugal was that it risked replacing a pro-western authoritarian regime with an anti-western communist dictatorship.
Similarly the fear in relation to the Arab uprisings is that they also risk replacing pro-western authoritarian regimes with anti-western theocratic dictatorships. Should then Western countries support a Portuguese-like change in the Arab world?
The risks are certainly higher, if one remembers the precedents of Pakistan and Iran. But if one compares with Portugal the fear of failure is even higher. Consider first the role of the military. Although the military in most Arab countries are also Western trained, but they are neither bound by membership to a democratic military alliance like NATO nor are they free from corruption charges as were the military under Salazar. If we look at the role of religion a major difference can also be found. After centuries of wars the catholic religion had already lost its grip on political power. That is not the case with Islam. Also, Islam does not have a Soviet-type leadership that the West can stop from interfering in the democratic process. More importantly, Portugal was culturally and socially part of a democratic Europe. Unfortunately, there is no such environment among Arab and Muslim countries. Among the more than 50 countries with Muslim majorities, less than one third is secular, and only two are democracies (Malaysia and Turkey) but none of them is Arab.
Therefore the chances of achieving a peaceful democratic regime change are very slim. The most likely result is a theocratic anti-western dictatorship and the West must have a plan B to deal with such eventuality, especially if it becomes a military threat. By definition democracy cannot be imposed by force. It is up to the Arab people to decide if and when they will choose democracy. Possibly, they will not be able to do so before severing the grip of religion on politics. However, that does not mean that the West should treat all dictatorships as equal. The three types of dictatorial regimes – theocratic, monarchic and military – are very different in their respect for peace and human rights.
This is a situation where one wishes that our pessimism is proved wrong.