Authoritarianism and Democratization

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In the Middle East, liberal democracy is a rarity. There is no democracy in the Western sense, that is, characterized by the right to form political parties; the possibility of changing government by election; the freedoms of the press, belief, and association; the protection of individual rights; the separation of powers; and secularism.

One reason for the lack of democratic structures lies in the experience of colonialism and neocolonialism. Most Arab countries achieved independence only after World War II, and the borders were in many cases fixed by the colonial powers; therefore, the people in the new political entities did not necessarily share a national identity. For some decades there was a strong movement toward "Arab unity" or pan-Arabism. However, actual attempts to form a greater nation, like that of Egypt, Syria, and Yemen (1958–1961), came to nothing.

Even in countries that never were colonies, like Iran and Afghanistan, Western and Soviet interference, respectively, prevented democratic development. The success of the Iranian revolution of 1978 and 1979 is partly due to the repeated defeat of attempts at democratization. The ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict stymies liberalization, and plays into the hands of extremist groups.

Another reason for the lack of democratic structures lies within the extremely patriarchal Middle Eastern societies themselves and their tradition of authoritarianism. The latter has its roots in the patronage system of the tribal Arab societies as well as in the Islamic theory of power with its ideal of the just sovereign.

The political landscape since the 1970s has been dominated by two forms of governance: conservative monarchies and military or single-party republics. Even countries that established an ideologically founded republic (e.g., Algeria, Tunisia, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen) or abolished monarchy through military coups d'état (e.g., Egypt, Iraq, and Libya), later developed a highly authoritarian, personalized leadership. If presidential elections are held, people do not really have a choice between different candidates; the "presidential monarch" is usually reelected with close to 100 percent of the votes (e.g., in 1999: Yemen 96%, Egypt 94%, Tunisia 99%). Nowhere else do governors stay in power so long: The average reigning time for rulers in the Arab world was twenty-one years in 1998.

With many Arab societies still divided into tribes (most notably in Yemen) or sects (Lebanon), it is hard to establish political parties at all. Moreover, members of minority factions often prefer authoritarian regimes that protect their existing freedoms.

A possible exception to the failure of democracy is Turkey, defined as a secular republic in 1923—by the patriarchal rule of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). Since the end of the single-party system in 1945, there has been a wide range of political parties, and governments have been changed by elections. The democratic character of the republic is limited, however, by the strong position of the military, which took over power three times between 1960 and 1980. Its influence as well as the continuing violation of human rights are obstacles to Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union.

Other countries in the region are, at least to some extent, free and democratic. Since 1989 Jordan has developed a relatively unfettered press and has installed an elected parliament with real opposition parties, while remaining a hereditary monarchy. Morocco also established a parliament, although the real political power still lies with the king. In states like Egypt, Tunisia, and the reunited Yemen, there are parliaments and elections, but the presidents—relying on a strong secret service or military—determine most developments and still refuse to grant rights to political movements, parties, or groups.

Syria and Iraq, where branches of the socialist Ba˓ath (Rebirth) party came to power in the 1960s, soon became extremely autocratic states with quasi-hereditary presidencies. The same thing happened to the political system created by Mu˓ammar al-Qadhafi in Libya in 1969, combining elements of grassroots democracy and socialist ideas with a totally autocratic style of governance.

The oil-rich Arab kingdoms and emirates of the Persian Gulf combined economic modernization with strict autocratic governance. As if in compliance with the principle "no taxation without representation," these wealthier states could afford to keep their population calm without granting democratic rights. The United Arab Emirates have no parliamentary structures at all; Saudi Arabia suppresses all opposition by force.

Throughout the Middle East, the 1980s were characterized by the rise of political Islam. It evolved primarily according to domestic factors, often as a reaction against authoritarianism and corruption. Some states are trying to include the Islamists in their democratization efforts: In Jordan and Yemen the major opposition parties in parliament are Islamist. But most states consider them a fundamental threat to the political system. In Algeria the democratization process ended with the annulment of the relatively free elections in December 1991, when it became evident that the Islamist Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) was going to win most parliamentary seats. The army took over with international approval and a decade of savage civil strife ensued.

Other states made concessions to political Islam. They revived, for example, the principle of consultation (shura), which in reference to Qur˒an passages 3:159 and 42:38 provides some kind of participation. Even Saudi Arabia has had a shura council since 1993; every four years its 120 members are appointed by the king. If broadly applied (as in Jordan), this principle of consultation can be helpful in achieving political participation and pluralization.

The Islamic Republic of Iran (1979) is an interesting case. Although an Islamic state, governed by the principle of velayat-e faqih (i.e., the absolute authority of the religious jurist), it has republican structures—a constitution, a parliament, and elections. Since 1997 the results of the elections, though still controlled, show a great demand for democracy, especially among women and young voters.

With the deaths of three veteran rulers in 1999 (the kings of Jordan and Morocco, and the emir of Bahrain) and of Syria's Hafiz al-Asad in 2000, a new generation of Arab leaders gained power, and more such changes will follow. These new rulers were partly educated in the West, and the aspirations for more democracy under their governance are high. They will probably not change the political systems completely, but they are taking steps to open their countries, economically and otherwise. Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who came to power in 1995, not only decreed that Qatar was to become a democracy, but also abolished censorship and launched al-Jazeera, the freest television channel in the Arab world. As one of its moderators put it, "the main obstacle to progress in the Middle East is the lack of free media. In our society, the rubbish has been swept under the carpet far too long."

See alsoAtaturk, Mustafa Kemal ; Modernization, Political: Administrative, Military, and Judicial Reform ; Modernization, Political: Constitutionalism ; Political Islam ; Qadhafi, Mu˓ammar al- ; Reform: Arab Middle East and North Africa ; Reform: Iran ; Revolution, Modern .


Brynen, Rex; Korany, Bahgat; and Noble, Paul, eds. Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Arab World. Vol. 1, Theoretical Perspectives. Vol. 2, Comparative Experiences. Boulder, Colo.: Rienner, 1995, 1998.

Gerner, Deborah J., and Schrodt, Philip A. "Middle East Politics." In Understanding the Contemporary Middle East. Edited by Deborah J. Gerner. Boulder, Colo.: Rienner, 2000.

Claudia Stodte Anne-Sophie Froehlich