Why is There No Arab Democracy?

This seminar examines possible explanations for a striking anomaly in the distribution of democracies around the world. While 60 percent of all the independent states in the world are at least electoral democracies, the Arab world is alone among major regions in lacking a critical mass of democracies. In fact, not a single one of the states of the Arab Middle East is classified by Freedom House as a democracy today. This presentation examines possible cultural, historical, economic, political, institutional, and geostrategic explanations for the democracy deficit in the Arab world. Rejecting some of these possible explanations as implausible or untenable, it affirms others and considers what factors might foster transitions to constitutional democracy in the Arab world.

Larry Diamond's presentation explored the question of why there is no Arab democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. Using Freedom House panel data, he demonstrated the relatively stagnant levels of democratic freedoms that have typified this authoritarian slice of geography for the last several decades: only two countries out of nearly twenty could be considered electoral democracies, and these were the non-Arab states of Turkey and Israel. He next sifted through several potential explanations for the absence of democratization.

The first was the culturalist thesis, that something inherent within Islam or Arab culture precludes the formation of a genuinely democratic set of institutions and values. However, the presence of democracy in other non-Western regions casts doubt on this contention. The second was economic development, a popular variable often correlated with democratic transitions; however, Arab autocracies each have analogues in other regions with similar levels of development but with democratic governments. More plausibly, a variety of political and institutional variables lay at the heart of the problem. For one, these regimes have become extremely adept at repressing dissidents and reformists within their societies. For another, they have adopted an adaptable ecology of liberalization, in which short bursts of political reform relieve temporary demands for reform while leaving intact executive monopolies over state resources. Further, they efficiently divide opposition parties and civic forces, often by imposing electoral rules and regulations that make it impossible for civil society-which is generally weak and fragmented-to mount concerted campaigns against the state apparatus. Finally, the dual conundrums of Islamism and the Arab-Israeli conflict play into each regime's survival strategy.

Authoritarian incumbents play up the nightmare of Islamic extremists gaining power to curry favor with the West and delay reforms; they also use the Palestinian issue to defuse popular grievance by way of rechanneling indignation against Israel.