The Middle East's Democracy Gap: Causes and Consequences

By Springborg, Robert | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Middle East's Democracy Gap: Causes and Consequences


Springborg, Robert, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


FOUR YEARS AFTER THE LANDMARK 2002 Arab Human Development Report highlighted the yawning gap between global democracy and its comparative absence in the Arab world, that gap remains.1 Despite promises of reform by most Arab leaders, expenditure in the hundreds of millions of dollars on Arab democratization projects by bilateral and multilateral donors, and an increasingly assertive Arab media, authoritarian governments persist. By even the least demanding definition of democracy-a change of the ruling executive through a free and fair election-only Palestine and Lebanon even partially qualify.

The purposes of this article are to illustrate the extent of the region's democracy gap; to suggest reasons as to why it exists, exploring its suggested relationship with Islam in greatest detail; and finally, to speculate on the vulnerability of the nondemocratic polities in the region to the politically radicalizing impacts of globalization.

AUTHORITARIANS IN ARAB STATES

An overview of Arab governance reveals underlying authoritarian characteristics. The Middle East is the only region of the world in which ruling-as opposed to reigning-monarchies continue to prosper in significant numbers. All of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states, plus Jordan and Morocco, are ruled by monarchs. Thus 8 out of the 22 Arab states are so governed.

Moreover, the distinction between Arab monarchies and republics has steadily eroded as a result of longevity of presidential rule and successions within incumbents' families. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who was never elected, has ruled Libya for 37 years. Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq for 35 years. Yemen's AIi Abdullah Saleh was in September reelected for another seven-year term, which means that if he serves out this term he will have been president for 35 years. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was reelected last year for another six-year term after having already served more than 24 years. Habib Bourguiba ruled Tunisia for 30 and his successor, Ben AIi, has been in the saddle for 19 more. Hafiz al Asad, who was in power in Damascus for 30 years, succeeded in handing the office over to his son Bashar, who is now in his sixth year of rule. Mubarak, Qaddafi, and Saleh are all working assiduously to assure the same for one of their offspring, something which Lebanon's Rafiq Hariri managed to do posthumously. The Arab world, in sum, not only has a higher percentage of monarchies than any other region of the world, it also has the longest average tenure of heads of state. The nations of no other region of the world are so characteristically ruled by one man and his family as those of the Arab world.

Another ubiquitous and antidemocratic feature of Arab governments is that their executive branches are large and top-heavy. The ratio of government spending to GDP averages about one-third, which is some 10 percentage points above the average for developing countries as a whole. Arab governments' disproportionate claim on finances is matched by their domination of labor markets. The wage bill constitutes on average about one-third of total government spending-which, according to the IMF, is some 4 percent higher than the average for all developing countries. Some particularly egregious examples reflect the broader situation. In Qatar and Kuwait, 95 and 99 percent, respectively, of nationals in the labor force are employed by the government. Even in the comparatively populous Arab states, civil services are bloated. In Egypt, for example, some 6 million of a total nonagricultural labor force of about 18 million are civil servants. The United Kingdom, in comparison, has some 500,000 civil servants out of a population that is only some 17 percent less than Egypt's.2

These large and powerful executives politically marginalize the other branches of government, rendering them incapable of performing even their limited constitutional and legal roles. Only two Arab parliaments-those of Palestine and Kuwait-have succeeded in forcing cabinet changes, the most dramatic evidence of parliamentary power. …

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