Magazine article Moment

The Roadblock to Arab Democracy

Magazine article Moment

The Roadblock to Arab Democracy

Article excerpt

Whenever I tell someone I am at work on a book of profiles of Arab democrats, I get the same response: "That will be a short book." To this I reply: "Don't underestimate my capacity for wordiness."

In fact, there are more than enough genuine democrats in the Arab world to fill my book, but not enough to change their region, where the influence of democracy is shockingly weak. Out of 171 non-Arab states in the world, the number of democracies is 123, or 72 percent. Of the 22 Arab states, the number of democracies is zero.

This calculation uses annual data compiled by Freedom House, which rates each country in the world as "free," "not free" or "partly free." It also identifies which countries are "electoral democracies" and which are not. All of the "free countries" are electoral democracies, as are some of the "partly free" ones. This category includes countries that have begun to hold free elections but lack other hallmarks of a free society, such as a reliable court system. In Freedom House's counting, countries that hold mock elections, such as Egypt or Russia, do not pass muster as "electoral democracies;" whatever other defects they may have, only countries that choose their governments in honest, competitive elections can win this designation.

The fact that nearly two-thirds of all the countries in the world today elect their leaders bespeaks a revolutionary change in the norms of government over the past 30-odd years. And it puts the Arab lag into stark relief. What accounts for it?

Economic backwardness explains the problem in part. Generally, the most powerful correlate of democracy is higher per capita income. The overwhelming majority of countries where citizens enjoy an annual income of $5,000 or more are democracies. Few Arab countries have reached this level. But this factor still falls short as an explanation. For one thing, while a few Arab countries with wealth from oil or commerce have passed the $5,000 mark, none of them are electoral democracies (although a few, including Bahrain and Kuwait, as well as non-oil countries such as Jordan, are ranked among the "partly free.") Furthermore, although much of the Arab world is poor, it is not as poor as sub-Saharan Africa, where per capita income is less than half of that of the Arab states. Yet democracy has begun to take hold in sub-Saharan Africa, where half of the 48 countries are electoral democracies.

Islam may he a second explanatory factor. Of the 47 states in the world with Muslim majorities, only nine, or 19 percent, are democracies. On the other hand, of 146 non-Muslim states, 114, more than three-quarters, are democratic. The impression of tension between Islam and democracy is reinforced by the fact that the only historic example of an Arab democracy is Lebanon, between the time it achieved independence in 1945 and the time it imploded into civil war in 1975, largely due to the pressure of foreign forces. …

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