Dictators’ days are very likely numbered, including Gadhafi’s 

The waves of public protest and revolt in the Middle East and North Africa continue in a historic drama still unfolding. Democracy is gaining, but uncertainty remains. This includes Libya, where Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, long-term close confident of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, has dramatically defected to Britain.

Allied air attacks have significantly slowed Gadhafi’s forces, providing breathing room for the opposition and doubtless forestalling widespread slaughter of civilians. Yet Gadhafi remains entrenched, and Libya combat has seesawed. Especially given American emphasis on air power, observers should remember that no war has ever been won from the air alone. Libya’s army has quickly recovered, driving dissident forces back.

The Libyan military’s capacity to strike back doubtless encourages the rulers of status quo Syria. In that family-run dictatorship, President. Bashar al-Assad is stalling regarding democratic change, and has focused instead on a pro forma parliamentary speech and formation of planning committees, but so far no real representative reform despite widespread unrest.

Given this mixed regional tapestry of reform and repression, frustration felt by ardent advocates of democracy is understandable.

In this context, a book by Harvard Professor Samuel HuntingtonHuntington is much more useful in addressing the current turmoil. “The Third Wave — Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century,” published in 1991, argues that there is a long-term trend over two centuries of broad public movement toward democracy, interrupted by bouts of dictatorship.

The first wave was spurred by the American and French revolutions, and reflected by extension of the right to vote to more than half of the adult male citizens in these populations as well as Great Britain, Switzerland and other countries. By this measure, Huntington calculates that the first great wave of democratic reform extended from the 1820s to the 1920s.

The years after World War I brought widespread antidemocratic reaction in favor of communist, fascist and other forms of dictatorship. This reflected not only the casualties and costs of that total war, but also extremely disruptive impacts of ongoing industrial revolutions.

According to Huntington, the second democratic wave began in the midst of World War II and continued into the 1960s. Representation was spurred by defeat of totalitarian dictatorships in Germany, Italy, Japan and elsewhere, and encouraged by post-war economic developments.

However, especially in Latin America, strong reactions developed against democratic institutions and toward authoritarian governments. Many new nations that had been European colonies became dictatorships.

The third wave toward democratic government began in 1974 with the collapse of military dictatorships in Portugal and Greece. Over the next 15 years, democracy was established in more than 30 countries, and the Soviet bloc began to collapse.

Americans are by nature impatient, and supporters of democracy worldwide are experiencing understandable frustration at Gadhafi’s reconfirmation that he and his dedicated supporters will go to great lengths to survive. Nonetheless, Huntington is persuasive that the dictators’ days are numbered.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.

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