The Revolution that Never Came
The failure of democracy in the Arab world may be vexing but it’s really not all that mysterious
The long-awaited “Arab spring” had arrived. Or so it appeared. On January 20, 2005, President George W. Bush declared in his inaugural address that “all who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” Less than two weeks later, the world stood in collective awe, as Iraqis braved terrorist threats to cast their ballots for the first time in their lives. For those who had been waiting decades to see something as simple as a free election, the moment was moving and emotional. Not long after, in March, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed. A nation grieved as it witnessed, yet again, a visionary figure cut down by the scourge of terror. Lebanon erupted in grief and then anger as close to one million Lebanese demanded self-determination on the streets of their war-torn capital. Then, in April, 50,000 Bahrainis – one-eighth of the total population – rallied for constitutional reform.
For a short while, it seemed that the Middle East was witnessing “a democratic moment,” one that would, in due time, render the region’s haunting past (and present) of tyranny a distant memory. However, it was not to be. The anticipated break with autocracy failed to materialize. Today, Arab dictators are as emboldened as ever. The heady democratic openings of last year have been replaced by sudden bouts of authoritarian retrenchment.
Ahead of his time, perhaps, but also behind it, USC economist Timur Kuran wrote in a provocative 1998 essay that “Arab regimes are highly vulnerable to a shock that would stimulate mass dissent. Indeed, even an ostensibly minor rise in open opposition within one Arab country might trigger a revolutionary cascade that then sets off similar cascades in others. Just such a domino process occurred in Eastern Europe less than a decade ago, when people within and outside the region marveled at the collapse of one communist regime after another. The scenario could be repeated in the Arab world”.
The “ostensibly minor rise in open opposition” happened not only in one Arab country, but in many. After 9/11, the Arab state system, long immune to change, experienced several of the “shocks” that Kuran believed would open up new possibilities. For a time, they did. Although we might not like to admit it, the unseating of the region’s most egregious dictator did, in fact, have a profound, if varied, effect on millions of Arabs.
Kuran also noted that “as conditions became more favorable to the expression of opposition, individuals would jump on the bandwagon for change, encouraging additional people to join in” (120). But the democratic openings of 2005, while real, proved unsustainable and easily reversible. Something, in other words, went wrong. In a recent post on the Abu Aardvark blog, Marc Lynch posed the stickiness of Arab autocracy a “puzzle.” But is it really that puzzling?
The problem with explanations of the Arab world’s “democratic deficit” – and Kuran’s thesis is no exception – is that they often fail to adequately account for external factors, namely the Unites States and its towering role in the region. Amazingly, over the course of thirteen pages, Kuran does not mention the US even once. It is almost as if the Arab world exists in a vacuum and, of course, it does not. For strategic reasons, the US has always been intimately involved in the question of Arab democracy and more than ever after September 11. Contrary to what the Bush administration would have us believe, however, it has not reconciled itself to the eventuality or even the desirability of Arab democracy. The fear of that Islamists will come to power through free elections – and they most certainly would – continues to animate America’s calculations, and, more often than not, at great consequence to democratic reform. The “Islamist dilemma” has been highlighted, in stark fashion, by recent Islamist electoral gains throughout the region. Hamas’s unlikely election victory in January 2006 marked the final, crushing defeat of America’s purported democratization drive.
Not surprisingly, then, the Bush administration continues to lend economic, military, and moral support to the region’s most stalwart dictators, including in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. After all, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, or so we are told.
If domestic factors were the only ones that mattered, then Kuran’s predictions may have borne themselves out. But US democracy promotion policy is a crucial variable and one that has a profound effect on regime actors who show a ready willingness to resort to repression knowing that America will say and do nothing to stop them. Moreover, the perception – whether real or imagined – that the US has veto power over Arab political fortunes leads to a sense of powerlessness among the population at-large, providing yet another disincentive for collective action. In short, external factors drastically alter the available opportunity structures for all involved, making successful transitions to democracy more or less likely – and certainly, in the case of the Arab world, the latter.
To truly understand the stubborn insistence of Arab autocracy, we must also delve into domestic factors, for while America matters, it would be foolish to think that the success or failure of Arab democracy is entirely dependent on political calculations made in Washington, DC. Such a notion, in addition to being false, denies 300 million Arabs the moral and political agency that is theirs and theirs alone.
Which leads us to problem # 2: Internally, the political dynamics of Arab countries are “exceptional.” Compared to other regions, the Arab world is paralyzed by a unique set of ideological cleavages that have made achieving substantive democratic reform a much more challenging task than it would otherwise be. In Eastern Europe and Latin America, the primary cleavage between regime and opposition was economic. In the Middle East, the primary cleavage is religious (i.e. Islamism vs. secularism) and this tends to complicate the situation. In such a context, divisions between government and opposition are not a matter of differing public policies, but rather one of the raison d’etre of the state itself. Politics, thus, becomes an existential concern and, in extreme examples, a matter of life and death, as it was during the fated Algerian elections of 1991, where a secular military regime chose civil war over a democratically-elected Islamist parliament. Such ideological polarization makes compromise between regime and opposition forces nearly impossible. “On matters of economic policy and social expenditures you can always split the difference,” the esteemed political scientist Dankwart Rustow once pointed out. But how do you split the difference on religion, ideology, and identity?
There is also the issue of ideological cleavages within the opposition itself. Successful democratic transitions in Latin America and Eastern Europe were facilitated by broad-based opposition coalitions which were able to unite behind inclusive pro-democracy platforms. A culture of compromise prevailed as key players were able to agree on the how, when, and why of democratization. In the Arab world, however, there is a lack of opposition consensus regarding the most foundational aspects of political life – namely the boundaries, limits and purpose of the nation-state. As a result, the opposition simply can’t get its act together. So Islamists and non-Islamists all too often fight each other instead of unifying their efforts against the regime.
It is this unfortunate confluence of internal and external factors which has made the Arab world the most undemocratic region in the world, even after a set of post 9-11 “shocks” that, in other circumstances, might have provided the impetus for the democratic revolution that Kuran envisioned.
The failure of Arab democracy, while vexing, should not strike us as particularly mysterious or surprising. Certainly, US policymakers should not pretend to be shocked at the way things turned out. While it is not entirely their fault, they have no doubt done their part to ensure the continued vitality of Arab autocracy. As Americans, it may be difficult for us to convince Islamists and secularists to stop hating each other. This is something that Arabs themselves must work to resolve (and, fortunately, there have been encouraging signs of Islamist-secularist reconciliation in recent years). It, however, is well within our purview to begin moving our country toward a democracy-centric foreign policy that actively promotes democratization in the Arab world not only in rhetoric but in practice. Such a policy is long overdue. Until then, let’s stop acting surprised. Arab democracy has failed, and it has failed for a reason, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t succeed if the appropriate course of action is taken.
Shadi Hamid is founding member and associate at The Project on Middle East Democracy and a PhD candidate in politics at Oxford University. He is also a contributor to Democracy Arsenal, the Security and Peace Initiative’s foreign affairs blog. He recently outlined his vision for a “democracy-centric foreign policy” in a two-part essay (and part 2) for The American Prospect.