Sir Donald McKinnon, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Secretary-General of the Commonwealth from 2000 to 2008, says Westerners should not expect too much from the Arab Spring.

Democracy as we know it in New Zealand and most Western countries will not break out throughout the Middle East as a result of the "Arab Spring", as it's become known.

What happened in Tunisia and Egypt is still playing itself out before we can judge the result, whilst in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya people are protesting against what they've had for years and they mostly just want change.

Some would say they want more democracy, which in its purest form is in short supply, but most are prepared to say their lives could be better just with something different. Not a great majority would promote democratic structures as we know them in advanced Western countries, with the appropriate decision-making widely spread.


What is emerging in Tunisia and Egypt will be an improvement on the past, it will involve more people having a say, but that doesn't necessarily create a democratic culture. The word culture is the key. Many nations use "democratic" in their title, even North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) which is anything but.

So let's be clear on the easiest and simplest way of defining a democratic culture. For me, this is via a phrase I have spelled out in many parts of the world over recent years: a democracy is a sovereign state whereby the people through regular elections vote for whom they wish to make decisions for them, with those decisions spread amongst legislators, an executive and a judiciary. I would add a free press. It is government with the consent of the governed.

Not a tall order if you're used to such an environment that includes occasionally people losing an election, and Governments changing without riots the next day.

So with the Egyptians and the Tunisians now trying to sort out "what next", people will be more concerned not to have a repeat of a Mubarak, but there will be many factions saying "it's our turn". I have no doubt the Army will play a major role and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be discounted. So it is hoped that whatever emerges has the broad support of the people. The culture that is to be avoided is the acceptance of one only centre of leadership.

There are of course very mixed views within the region about what should happen. The fact that the Arab League supported the intervention of UN/Nato in Libya says more about their attitude to Gaddafi than it does about their attitude to governance changes.

The same group has not suggested (and would not suggest) similar intervention in Syria as that regime has much stronger links with and influence in the Arab world.

The West thought that when the Western-educated Bashar Al-Assad with his English [raised] wife took over from his father things would be different. They underestimated the influence of his father's lieutenants.

You also cannot ignore outside influences. The support of the United States was a major factor in Mubarak's survival as a leader.


That is not uncommon. I could name several leaders around the world who have passed their use-by date but have a patron in the form of a large, rich foreign state that prefers the status quo. Such strong support for a single person who avoids scrutiny from oversight institutions such as a legislature does not auger well. It also underlines my point that if democratic institutions are not permitted, or are hollowed out, it is difficult for a democratic culture to take root.

There is, of course, much hope in many quarters that expected developments across North Africa and the Middle East will be for the good of the area generally. But the chances of passing the halfway mark to a functioning credible democracy are still remote.

So what can we expect over the next few months? In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi - rejected as a pan-Arab leader by his fellow Arab leaders, then rejected by the Africans whom he also wished to lead - is fighting for his life; more importantly for him, his reputation and possible indictments from the International Criminal Court. He will not easily give up, and even if a truce settlement is reached, it or he may not survive.

What about the other countries? In many states we will see a mixture of results. There will be attempts to display a stronger democratic configuration but regretfully some of that foundation will be built on envy, jealousy and a desire for payback.

When the dust has settled there will be ample funding and support from regional and international agencies to help these countries to move forward in a democratic direction. But outsiders need to remember you cannot parachute in a democratic model from elsewhere. The local people must have a strong say, so the result will likely be a hybrid, somewhere between what's best and what has been rejected. It will also be strongly influenced by the dominant religious, cultural and tribal factors.

The states and governance configurations that emerged from the Soviet Union's break up tell us there are many possible options and trajectories when big changes erupt through a region. There should be no surprises through the rest of this year. Current political and civic leaders may well change their colours so as not to become unemployed and many habits will not change. My wish would be an effective executive, but one held accountable to, and occasionally constrained by, a fully representative legislature.