Why Democracy Will Struggle In The Arab World In 2014

It’s not just the war in Syria and Egypt’s military crackdown—democracy will continue to struggle in countries across th e Middle East in 2014.

01.12.14 11:45 AM ET

There is little doubt that democracy has won the battle of ideas in the world. Despite a generally low trust in politicians and representative institutions throughout the West, no credible system of political ideas has so far emerged to seriously challenge the notion that democracy is the best system of government—not even China’s seemingly successful blend of capitalism and authoritarian government. Even in the Arab world, seemingly so resistant to democratisation, large majorities routinely proclaim support for democracy (see polls here and here).

Yet democratisation in the Arab world is in trouble. In the wake of the 2011 revolutions and uprisings, Egypt has reverted to military rule, Syria has descended into civil war, Bahrain’s royal house continues to stand, Yemen and Libya remain essentially failed states; only Tunisia can claim to have (semi-)succesfully navigated the transition to democratic government. Problems are like to persist in 2014 because underlying conditions—conditions necessary for democracy to function smoothly—are weak or missing. Here are six things that are important for democratic government to work, many of which are not present in the Arab world.

1. A strong middle class

Strong and self-confident middle classes are usually considered to be the most important prerequisite for democracy to work well. It is no accident that most democratic states are in the rich world. Scholars have even come up with an unofficial threshold—$6,000-$7,000 GDP per capita—under which democracy is likely to fail. It’s an idea that’s been around for some time: Aristotle himself argued that “the ideal of the state is to consist as much as possible of persons that are equal and alike, and this similarity is most found in the middle classes … since where some own a very great deal of property and others none there comes about either an extreme democracy or an unmixed oligarchy, or a tyranny may result from both of the two extremes.” 

It is usually the habit of the middle classes to demand accountability from their governments. It also tends to take economic self-confidence and independence to actually be able to hold governments to account. This is why countries that became rich by selling their natural resources such as oil tend to find it harder to democratise—as extraction and marketing is almost always controlled by the state, it doesn’t really produce an independent middle class. Of the four Arab states effected by the 2011 revolutions and without significant oil production (Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen), only Tunisia is comfortably above the $6,000-$7,000 threshold.

2. An educated population

A well-educated or at least literate population is oftenconsidered another prerequisite, since democratic choices require at least a measure of awareness and knowledge about the world that surrounds us. Scholars have found clear links between literacy and democracy, and it is no accident that modern mass democracy started to emerge in Europe towards the end of the 19th century, the same time newspapers and cheap books became readily available to the urban masses. In this respect, the six Arab countries most effected by the 2011 revolutions are not doing too well: only Bahrain has a literacy rate of above 90 percent. Anybody who has recently visited the region will know that reading is definitely not in. Most people have no books in their house and decent—indeed, any—bookshopsare very rare.

3. States that are ethnically and religiously quite homogenous

Countries that are split along ethnic, religious or tribal lines usually find it more difficult to sustain a democratic system. People in these countries are often divided by views that are necessarily more difficult to compromise on because they are tied to their very identity. Similarly, if people belonging to one group feel that they share little or nothing with people from the other group, they will find it far more difficult to accept that sometimes they will be left in a minority and will have to accept decisions that may be detrimental to their interests (as it sometimes happens in democracies). People who are bound together by ties of kinship, religion, ethnicity or a shared sense of history digest these problems far more easily, which is why most modern democracies have a relatively homogenous population or at least a strong sense of nationhood. This is true of some Arab countries, such as Egypt, and less true of others, such as Syria, which is one of the reasons the revolution there has turned into a civil war: few Alawites, Christians or Kurds are happy about the prospect of a Sunni-dominated Syrian state.

4. Strong civil society

Societies that have lots of different associations that are independent of the state usually have better democracies because these help the individual to protect his or her interests, and voice his or her concerns. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker who visited the United States in the early 19th century, marvelled at the richness of its civic life: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies… but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive,” he wrote in Democracy in America, his most famous work. A rich civic life also helps foster the skills that are important for democracy: the ability to articulate one’s opinion, to debate, to listen to others and to compromise. But in today’s Arab societies, decades of paranoid authoritarian rule have destroyed and undermined most attempts at forming independent institutions.

5. Protection of minorities and individuals

It is a sadly typical misunderstanding of the concept of democracy, often present in countries that have just escaped authoritarian rule, that the system is simply about majority rule—that the electoral winner may take all. While majority rule is an important component, democracies can only function on the long run if they strongly protect the minority and the individual. The former is important because people will only regularly subject themselves to majority decisions that they may very well lose if there is a understanding that their vital interests—their life and property—will not be threatened. As for the latter—the protection of the individual—democracy is a system of rights: it cannot function without the right to think and speak, the right to form associations and to assemble, the right to vote and—remember the need for a strong middle class—the right to own property. If individual rights are undermined, then all these rights are in danger, and ultimately so is democracy itself. There is an anecdote attributed to Benjamin Franklin that defines democracy as two wolves and a lamb voting what to have for dinner. Liberty, then, is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote. A fundamental misunderstanding of these concept was one of the things that undid the Muslim Brotherhood’s impatient and intolerant rule in Egypt.

6. Democrats

Strongly connected to the last two is the strength of democratic ideals in a country. A country can have all the fundamentals right, if it doesn’t have enough democrats, then it will struggle to make democracy work. Perhaps the most important democratic habit is the ability to compromise: to understand the democratic politics is not a fight to the death, that not every battle is a battle for survival. Such an approach will turn politics into a battlefield and ultimately undo democracy’s institutions. Of course, this requires trust. It has been shown that societies with higher levels of trust, such as those in northern and western Europe, have stronger democracies than those that have lower levels of trust, such as those in southern and eastern Europe, for example. Societal trust, unfortunately, is mostly weak in contemporary Arab societies, partly because authoritarian governments have done so much to destroy it. Other important democratic habits include an ability to think critically and to try and actively take part in the civic life of one’s country, rather than just sit back and let other people do the thinking and acting for us. While polls regularly show large support for the idea of democracy in most Arab societies, it is less clear that these habits are present. According to the Arab Opinion Index of 2013, there isn’t a single Arab country where majorities consider political freedom and civil liberties as requirements for democracy. Also, in some Arab countries, such as Syria or Libya, there is now on the rise a particular brand of political Islam that rejects democracy altogether.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

7. A difficult regional and international environment

These are the internal factors. Just as important, however, is a permissive external environment. The countries of eastern Europe turned, all in all without too much difficulty, democratic after the Soviet Union collapsed; before that, they didn’t stand a chance, although their societies and economies may have been perfectly ready. As the 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber said, what good is the best social policy if the Cossacks are coming? Unfortunately for the Arabs, their international environment couldn’t be more difficult: the Syrian regime, for example, enjoys the support of great authoritarian powers such as Russia, Iran and China, while democratic powers such as the U.S. and Europe have been at best incompetent in their support for the country’s moderates. The Middle East is also cut into two by a bloody schism between Sunnis and Shiites and a great-power rivalry between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Israel and the Palestinian question have also historically served as excellent excuses for Arab regimes to maintain police states, and have led to the rise of militant organisations such as Hezbollah or Hamas. Yet external support for struggling democracies can do wonders: eastern Europe’s accession to NATO and the European Union or indeed America’s Marshall aid to post-war western Europe come to mind. There is nothing remotely similar for those in need of help in the Arab world.

To be sure, not all these things are critical for democracy to survive. India, for example, is still very poor and beset by many ethnic and religious divides, yet has a thriving democracy. Many recently democratised countries have managed to hold onto the fundamentals of the system even as governments have turned increasingly authoritarian and undermined individual rights: think of Turkey or Hungary. But weakness in all or even most of these factors doesn’t bode well. That seems to be the case in most of the Arab world, even if fear of the ruler, perhaps the strongest past pillar of Arab authoritarianism, may now be largely gone. And in some countries, where the very state has crumbled, questions of basic security have overtaken concerns over what type of government is best. So expect more struggle for 2014.