What do such cases have to say about the Arab Spring? That the problems so evident in Egypt and other transitioning countries today are entirely normal and predictable, that they are primarily the fault of the old authoritarian regimes rather than new democratic actors, and that the demise of authoritarianism and the experimentation with democratic rule will almost certainly be seen in retrospect as major steps forward in these countries’ political development, even if things get worse before they eventually get better.

Most countries that are stable liberal democracies today had a very difficult time getting there. Even the cases most often held up as exemplars of early or easy democratization, such as England and the United States, encountered far more problems than are remembered, with full-scale civil wars along the way. Just as those troubles did not mean democracy was wrong or impossible for North America or western Europe, so the troubles of today’s fledgling Arab democracies do not mean it is wrong or impossible for the Middle East.

Then and now, most of the problems new democracies faced were inherited. Democracy does not necessarily cause or exacerbate communal and social strife and frustration, but it does allow the distrust and bitterness built up under authoritarian regimes to surface, often with lamentable results. But nostalgia for authoritarian stability is precisely the wrong response to such troubles, since it is the pathologies inherent in authoritarianism that help cause the underlying problems in the first place.

History tells us that societies cannot overcome their problems unless and until they face them squarely. The toppling of a long-standing authoritarian regime is not the end of a process of democratization but the beginning of it.