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Is Arab Democracy Possible Without Islamists?

Until the September 11th terrorist attacks, a lack of political freedom in the Middle East generally provoked little international outcry. But in recent years, there has been an intense search for ways to unlock the rigid ruling systems of many Mideast countries, which may foster terrorism.

Democratic Deficit

Political systems in the Middle East range from benign monarchies and minor autocracies to military dictatorships and totalitarian states. Marcus Noland, a senior analyst at the Institute for International Economics here in Washington, says statistical data indicate that authoritarianism is especially persistent in Middle Eastern countries with majority Arab populations. He adds that interpretations of this particular finding are very controversial.

“Some argue that there’s something in the Arab culture that is inherently anti-democratic and there are some anthropologists who have argued this. But it also could be that it’s not Arab culture, per se. It’s that there is something in the specific political history and current status of these countries that is creating the statistical association between Arab ethnicity and lack of democracy,” says Mr. Noland.


Colonialism, lack of modernization, social structures, government reliance on oil revenues and religion are other commonly cited reasons for the democratic deficit in the Arab world. Marius Deeb, Professor of Middle East Studies at The Johns Hopkins University, is one of many scholars who blame the region’s history of conflict for enabling Arab rulers to suppress democratic movements.

“The very idea that there is an Arab-Israeli conflict, which is going on despite the fact there is a peace process from the 1970s onward, creates this sort of excuse to have military dictators and to have one-party systems operating, taking over power and remaining in power,” says Professor Deeb.

Comparisons With Other Regions

But many observers say the political history of the Middle East is not much different from that of the rest of the world. North Korea, China, Burma and a number of other countries in Asia, as well as several African states, also suffer from a lack of democracy and show few signs of improvement. Many also point out that the former Soviet republics, including Russia, are sliding into authoritarianism, except for a few shaky pockets of political pluralism like Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.

Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, says emerging from authoritarianism can be slow and painful in any part of the world and that the Middle East is no exception. He says democratic governance is supported by relatively well off and educated societies and rarely those with low per capita incomes.

“Most Arab countries do not have a thriving working and middle class that has the kind of income that it could mobilize resources for a greater share of power. A country like Egypt has a per-capita income of something on the order of $1,000 a year. And what that really means, since urban people make much more [money] than rural people, is that most Egyptians who live in the countryside, probably 40 percent or so, really are living on a few hundred dollars a year.”

Role of Poverty

Professor Cole points out that even oil rich countries like Saudi Arabia have impoverished populations and that unemployment is on the rise throughout the Arab world. Syria, for example, a tightly controlled military regime, is among the least developed countries in the region. But he acknowledges that poverty and illiteracy do not always impede democracy, as evidenced by India.

Marcus Noland of the Institute for International Economics says that unlike Indian leaders, Arab ruling elites have chosen not to modernize their social and political systems. “My statistical results are pointing toward an explanation that emphasizes basic issues having to do with [a lack of] modernization combined with elite preferences as being the basic drivers for the enduring authoritarianism of the region,” he says.

But Anthony Cordesman, a senior Middle East analyst at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, disagrees. “You have in Saudi Arabia’s case, an extraordinarily conservative and traditional population, not a group of people seeking democracy and freedom, but often the leadership of the royal family, technocrats and educators who have pushed for reform faster than much of the people necessarily want to follow. [It is] almost the reverse of the traditional argument about authoritarianism and democracy,” says Mr. Cordesman.

Islam And Democracy

The escalation of global terrorism, aimed at Arab as well as Western targets, and increased pressure to democratize, have forced many authoritarian rulers to allow some political reform in recent years. But Islamist groups, some of them long suppressed or even banned like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have turned out to be among the most eager to participate in the political process. Many in the West fear that democratization of the Middle East may replace current authoritarianism with rigid Islamist regimes.

Professor Juan Cole agrees that democratizing the Muslim world would likely produce gains for Islamists. But the alternative, he says, is more autocracy and more violence. He cites the example of Algeria where an Islamist election victory in 1991 was annulled, plunging the country in a bloody civil war.

Many analysts predict that Islamist parties that are now seen as traditionalist and reactionary are more likely to bring democracy to the Middle East than outside pressure. But ultimately, most say, democracy will come to each country when its people are ready for it and not a moment before.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.