01/17/2012 05:53 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Has the West Forgotten the Middle East?


The 2008 U.S. presidential election was a triumph of democracy. Just over 40 years earlier, African-Americans in the South were barred from going to the same schools and using the same public amenities as whites. Providing basic civil rights for African-Americans was a contentious issue which, until Lyndon Johnson's presidency, was not able to be passed through Congress.

This was an affront for a country whose Declaration of Independence stated, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Of course many of the founding fathers behind this 1776 Declaration themselves were slave owners.

Regardless of one's opinion of Barack Obama (his policies or his political leanings), his election in 2008 represented a triumph of democracy, that someone from a minority group could be elected by the very people of that country to the highest office.

The lustre of that election, and of the inauguration in 2009, has since faded with the harsh realities of governing America during a difficult economic period, and with the system of divided government (Presidency, House, and Senate) which makes it hard to get initiatives passed. However, the significance and triumph of the election of the first African-American president should not be forgotten, for America and for democracy.

The noise and activity of a political party convention, the casting of one's ballot in a general election, the cacophony of political ads, and protesters taking to the streets, these are all inspiring parts of a healthy democratic process. Democracy, true democracy, is noisy and chaotic, as people have their say, voice their concerns, and hold their leaders to account.

This assessment may sound overly idealized -- no system is ever perfect -- but nonetheless democratic society is important and valuable.

Time magazine proclaimed their 2011 person of the year to be the protester. In the Middle East and North Africa, with the Arab Spring -- which started from Tunisia and spread throughout the region -- deeply entrenched authoritarian regimes were toppled by popular uprisings of people demanding accountability from their leaders and, especially for youth, jobs, and economic opportunity.

Arab Spring protesters demanded, and are still demanding, democracy -- including accountability from their leaders -- economic opportunity, and respect in having their voices heard. In the process, stereotypes about the Middle East and Muslim countries as being places primarily of religious fundamentalism have been soundly debunked.

Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda consist of a very small number of people. However, with the Arab Spring it has been masses of people demanding the same rights of democracy and economic opportunity that we in the West uphold. Just like in the West, the protesters in the Middle East, who are changing the political landscape of their region, want government that is accountable to the poor and middle class, not just to the wealthy and well-connected.

Even though we are no longer receiving minute-by-minute 24 hour coverage (as was in the case in the early days of protests in Cairo's now-iconic Tahrir Square) the struggles for democracy in the Middle East are far from over. In Egypt, for example, protesters who initially welcomed the military led interim government after Mubarak's ouster, have grown increasingly mistrustful, especially in light of events such as a crackdown on protesters in Tahrir Square. There have also been problems with religious-based attacks on that country's Christian minority.

Nonetheless, elections have been moving forward -- for the legislative body and the presidency -- a complicated process involving multiple rounds and 47 political parties, many of them only a few months old.

In Syria, that country's authoritarian ruler, Bashara al-Assad (who inherited his position from his father) has carried out a brutal and violent crackdown on protesters. Only a limited number of foreign journalists have been allowed into the country, and their access has been restricted. Meanwhile, cities such as Homs in Syria have become war zones.

The recent struggles for democracy in the Middle East have been, too many times, met with violent resistance, but they are struggles we should not forget even as those of us in the West are tempted to direct our attention to other things, thinking the struggle stopped after the early days and weeks of Tahrir Square.

The rights to assemble, to voice our opinions, and to hold our leaders accountable in regular elections, are important ones. We should not take for granted what we enjoy in the West, and should stand in solidarity with those struggling to achieve those rights elsewhere in the world.

In an age of internet and social media, with an increasingly vocal and assertive population of youth, these demands for democracy are becoming stronger, a process that is bottom-up rather than top-down. Democracy, freedom of speech, and economic opportunity, are important aspirations, we should not forget the importance of these rights, and the struggles (past and present) to attain them.