Leading article: Our world is a better place

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The Independent Online

Globalisation can be benign. In the 22 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 7 per cent of the world's people and 47 nations have moved into the light of democracy, according to Freedom House. With luck, another 1.2 per cent of the globe's population in Egypt will join the free world.

Friday was a big moment in world history, the sense of drama enhanced by President Hosni Mubarak's last gasp of defiance the night before. The parallel is unavoidable between last month's uprising in Tunisia, which inspired the Egyptian revolution, and the fall of the Wall, which started the domino run in the former communist bloc. Today, the dominoes of Arab absolutisms are wobbling: Algeria, Yemen, Jordan. Beyond them, the long-running popular unrest in the central African state of Gabon draws strength from the Egyptian example; while the theocrats of Iran can only feel uneasy.

It is too early to say how the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt will work out for the peoples there, and not in the Zhou Enlai sense of its being "too early" to judge the effect of the French Revolution. But it is worth noting that some of the arguments of the "pragmatists" seem unfounded. The idea that it was in the interests of the US and Europe to prop up dictators for fear that democracy would unleash anti-western Islamist movements has found scant evidence among the crowds in Tahrir square, for example.

Of course we should be cautious, and acknowledge that Egypt and Tunisia could still relapse into authoritarian rule, but a spell has been broken, and it would not be premature to draw some lessons from the events of recent weeks.

In fact, the debate about democracy's spread has not been for some time between pragmatists and idealists, but between two kinds of "idealist". Tony Blair and the George Bush administration put the emphasis on the use of military force to bring democracy to Iraq, and were ostentatiously indifferent to the use of torture by regimes such as Mr Mubarak's if they were considered useful in the greater struggle against jihadist terrorism.

The less muscular form of idealism adopted by Barack Obama (and, although he has yet to be tested, by David Cameron, with the phrase, "We cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet") has been strengthened by the north African revolutions. Above all, the toppling of his friend Mr Mubarak is a rebuke to Mr Blair. Our former prime minister criticised President Obama for his speech in Cairo in June 2009 as, in effect, the appeasement of Islamism. Yet Mr Obama's judgement has been vindicated. By recanting past American arrogance, Mr Obama transformed popular attitudes towards the US in Egypt and made it easier for the citizens' movement to be a positive expression of national pride rather than a negative anti-westernism.

The big lesson is that the world's democracies can best help the peoples who do not share their freedoms by the "soft" power of example, information and the promise of prosperity, rather than the "hard" power of force. The much-hyped role of Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones in mobilising the revolutions reflects the importance of the ease with which the people in unfree countries can access the news, culture and values of the free world. Less hyped has been the role of economic hardship in north African countries, and the hope of their peoples that by getting rid of long-lasting rulers they will cast out corruption and revive free-market prosperity.

The dangers are obvious. There is the danger of unrealistic expectations that democracy will automatically bring higher living standards. And there is the danger of instability, even if the pragmatists of the past were too willing to put stability before democracy. What might work in Egypt might not work in Saudi Arabia.

But the prize is great. And the greatest contribution that Europe and the US could make is perhaps to step up efforts to secure agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Once the concept of Arab democracy takes root from the bottom up, rather than at the barrel of a gun as in Iraq, Israeli exceptionalism becomes harder to sustain and the conditions for a two-state settlement more propitious.

As an optimistic newspaper, The Independent on Sunday believes that, although there will be setbacks ahead, the world has, as a result of the people's courage in Tunisia and Egypt, become a better and more hopeful place.