Explaining the “Democracy Deficit” in the Arab World

Those of you who follow this blog at all know that I’ve been interested in democracy in the Arab world. Democratization and Islam pose undeveloped and interesting future theoretical issues. A new report was just published by the Brookings Institute and authored by Eric Chaney. It is a methodologically and empirically sophisticated document that poses an interesting explanation for the democracy deficit in the Arab world. The document can be retrieved here: http://www.brookings.edu/economics/bpea/Latest-Conference/chaney.aspx

At first glance, it looks as though the Middle East is holding more elections than usual –Tunisia,Morocco,Libya, and Egypt. Is this unusual? The Middle East andNorth Africaare not known for competitive elections and have been criticized historically for failing basic democratic principles. There has been debate for some time about why the Middle East has resisted democracy and explanations run the gamut from too much oil, too much religion, too much military, too much conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis (of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to be the blame for something, even deep historical patterns in Muslim culture), and too much centralized power.

Eric Chaney and his report on “Democratic Change in the Muslim World” noticed something striking. He noticed a concentration of non-democracies in areas of the world invaded by Muslims. But it was religion and the control structures put in place that prevented democracy from developing. And it is control structures that pacify and control a population that were most important. Some Muslim countries like Albania, Chad, and Sierra Leonedo not share the democratic deficit because they were not subject to Muslim state political control. Some non-Arab countries conquered by Arabs still have the democracy deficit. So it is not Arab culture or Islam per se that is the reason for democracy deficit, but the political control structures put in place.

The best explanation according to Chaney is the “institutional persistence” that has held strong to a consistent pattern of autocracy. Dating back generations, Islamic countries have put into place control structures that included close relationships with the military and religious strictures that prevented the evolution of a strong civil society or any centers of power that might compete with the state.

In the last century a number of structural changes have provided the basis for current uprisings. Chaney noted that more recent reports of well-being have been diminishing in countries like Egypt and Tunisia and this is associated with general theories of revolutionary change. Interestingly, democracy is not likely to evolve in cultures that are divided between the military and religious organizations (Egypt), but will be more successful in cultures with a greater civic balance of influence (Tunisia). Egypt started out on the world stage as a model of change and demand for greater freedom and democratic processes, but much of Chaney’s analysis does not bode well for Egypt’s future as power simply shifts in Egypt from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood. The military-religious alliance that undermined democracy for centuries is still very much present in places likeYemen and Egypt.

Still, the Arab world is more ripe for democratization than ever before. Changes in the last 60 years have established more fertile conditions promising to unhinge rigid structures. In the absence of competition for power, any group will likely establish autocratic rule. Unless Islamists in countries like Egypt become more receptive to civil society power groups such as labor unions and commercial interests, then it is highly likely that autocracy will continue. The ramblings of democratic change in the Arab world are encouraging, but it’s too soon to be hopeful.






About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on May 17, 2012, in Democracy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Explaining the “Democracy Deficit” in the Arab World.

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