Democracy is an ideal and in that sense the Arab impulse for emancipation has been remarkable.
Viable Arab democracies still possible despite violence
In his 2009 book No Enchanted Palace, the historian Mark Mazower examines the ideological origins of the United Nations. He argues that far from being an idealistic innovation, the UN was initially seen by many of its leading supporters as a body that could strengthen great power rule internationally.
This also reflected a world view with relevance today for the Arab world as it goes through considerable instability.
For Mazower, the UN was very much an updated version of the League of Nations. And in this context there was little opposition initially to the notion that some states were superior to others, and that the more advanced states were entitled to lead less advanced states until they reached a higher level of political development.
After the First World War, this principle was embodied in the mandates system. In the Middle East, it allowed European powers to take control of former Ottoman territories. This was imperialism under another name, even if the League of Nations was allowed, in theory at least, to supervise how the mandates were governed.
Today such an approach arouses indignation. Concepts of superior and inferior states cannot be readily expressed in a world wedded to equality, and the UN itself, between the 1950s and 1970s, became an institution of which many of its member states had overthrown European imperialism. And yet there is still a widespread view, when discussing democracy, that many societies do not have what it takes to sustain democratic orders similar to those in the West.
Take the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who once wrote that the end of the Cold War had brought an ideological "end of history", in which liberal democracy had won in the struggle of ideas. Mr Fukuyama revised his views in a book published in 2006: America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy. In the book, he argued that democracy was not a "default regime" to which societies reverted when dictators were removed. On the Middle East, he affirmed that Arab societies were both culturally and institutionally unprepared for democracy.
This view reflected Mr Fukuyama's unease with the war in Iraq. If a true democracy was not forthcoming in Iraq, then why go to war in defence of democracy?
Mr Fukuyama's scepticism was echoed by others. Brent Scowcroft, a national security adviser to former president George H W Bush, made a similar statement in a 2004 interview: "It's not that I don't believe Iraq is capable of democracy. But the notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me." Implicit in his remarks was that those George W Bush would be liberating in Iraq would not necessarily turn into model democrats.
Both Mr Fukuyama and Mr Scowcroft are not racists, and their arguments were hardly designed to justify an American mandate over Iraq. Quite the contrary. In looking at what is happening in many Arab societies today, from Egypt to Tunisia, and from Libya to Syria, it's easy to share their doubts. However, views like theirs are understood not very differently from those of individuals who believe that certain societies must dominate the world by virtue of their ability to manage stable democratic orders.
It is unavoidable, given the chaos that has gripped the Middle East and North Africa since December 2010, to wonder why it is that Arab societies seem incapable of navigating smooth transitions toward open, representative orders. But then, regardless whether it has become a reality, democracy is an ideal and in that sense the Arab impulse for emancipation has been remarkable. In Egypt, Libya and above all Syria, the number of people who have died supporting the overthrow of a dictator has reached levels unheard of in the West.
Arab societies may not be culturally or institutionally apt for democracy, to borrow from Mr Fukuyama, but several of them have been willing to fight undemocratic regimes they knew would not respond with pity or humanity. Fighting tyranny does not on its own guarantee democracy, some would argue, and it may heighten the contradictions making democracy less likely.
There is no doubt that the grinding interplay between state and society, between leaders and their people, is what helps open governing institutions up to the popular will. That is what we are witnessing in Egypt today, although whether this is destined to produce more democracy is questionable if the resulting instability brings back military rule. And in Iraq, the facade of democratic institutions may collapse if the autocratic methods of the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, precipitate a sectarian war.
Historically, political power in the Arab world has been anchored in top-down systems, with the ruler being the source of most authority. This was consolidated by a desire in many societies for stability, favouring autocrats who imposed it. So, the first step towards more representative orders is greater pluralism and a delegitimisation of the need to resort to violence, the ultimate weapon of autocrats.
Pluralistic orders are more difficult to hijack, even if they are not necessarily democratic. They create spaces independent of the state that can resist the overreach of a state's security organs. In the absence of fully functioning democratic institutions, expanding pluralism, particularly through civil society, is the best alternative. A more democratic system can slowly emerge from spaces of autonomy.
The idea that societies are superior or inferior to each other tells us little. But not all societies manage democratic institutions in the same way. There is no golden path to democracy, even if anchoring political and social pluralism provides one path. And that is perhaps what Arab societies should now focus on doing, as they look for ways out of the dilemmas created by the sudden onrush of freedom.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling