What Mongolia Can Teach the Middle East

The popular upheavals in Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli gripped Ulaan Bator only a generation ago. Now it's our turn to help the Arab revolutions fulfill their potential.


Perhaps no man has done more to change the face of the Middle East in the past 100 years than Mohamed Bouazizi. The Tunisian street vendor’s ultimate act of defiance — self-immolation in the face of continued humiliation and degradation — has unleashed pent-up forces that are sweeping across North Africa and hold the potential for bringing freedom to tens of millions of people. As coalition forces act against the brutality of Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and activists in countries such as Syria push bravely for political reform, the Middle East is ushering in a new age where the seeds of democracy can at last find fertile ground.

As the world watched the throngs of demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt, I was gripped by the same feeling that swept Mongolia’s Sukhbaatar Square two decades before. Back then, as one of the organizers of our democratic uprising against the communist-run government, I stood for days in the biting cold, freezing but exhilarated because the fear that our rulers instilled in us — to bend us, and ultimately break us into subservience — was gone. We were not backing down. There was no certainty that freedom would prevail, but in the end, it did.

To many foreign-policy "experts," especially so-called "realists," these Middle Eastern movements for political liberalization come as a complete surprise. They should not. What we are witnessing speaks to a primary human value granted to each of us, no matter the country: the desire for freedom and the urge to peacefully work to see one’s values reflected in government. People deprived of this right will naturally seek it, fight for it, and if necessary, die for it.

Leaders should acknowledge this fact and unleash the tremendous potential of their countrymen through political liberalization. From this will flow greater education, greater economic benefits, and a better standard of living for all to enjoy. Democracies are inherently peaceful. A democratic process seeks solutions through dialogue and negotiation, not through violent acts or the use of force.

Some still fear change in the Middle East’s status quo, but this skepticism is misplaced. The "jasmine" spirit should be embraced, and the international community should work within that process of change to plant and reinforce democratic values. As political pluralism takes root, the major losers will be radical elements, such as al Qaeda, who hold themselves up as vehicles for change through terror and violence.

In 1990, following the overthrow of Mongolia’s Politburo, the democratic leaders of our country asked a simple question: What next? It was easy to be against something. Now, we had to move from activists to advocates. Frankly, that was when our most difficult work began. In the months that followed, we hammered out a new constitution that enshrined individual liberties, a democratic process, and an independent court system. Political and economic development went hand in hand. Since that time, Mongolia has experienced several peaceful transfers of political power, and today our GDP is primed to triple over the next decade thanks to our natural resources and the creativity of our people.

Egypt and Tunisia — and hopefully other countries that emerge from democratic revolution — will need much assistance. The corrupt, kleptocratic bureaucracies and repressive security forces that enforced the tyranny of their previous rulers must be radically overhauled. Laws must be adopted to protect the political gains that the people have fought to achieve. This is where countries such as Mongolia and others that have transitioned to democratic governance could help. Our customs and cultures might be different, but sharing advice from our successes as well as our failures can prove invaluable in helping those countries get back on their feet and start building a new era for their country. The Middle East’s young democrats will also need constant encouragement. Expectations tend to run much higher than results, and democracy can be a very difficult, messy, and slow process.

The greatest change in the Middle East is within the mindset of the people. They have shed their fear, and therein lies an important lesson. Having lived under and fought against the tyranny of communism, there’s one thing I know: There is no dictatorship, no military regime, and no authoritarian government that can stand against the collective will of a people who want to be free.

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