Princes and Parliaments in the Arab World

By Herb, Michael | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Princes and Parliaments in the Arab World


Herb, Michael, The Middle East Journal


Several Arab monarchies have held reasonably free elections to parliaments, though all remain authoritarian. This article compares the Arab monarchies with parliaments in other parts of the world, including both those that became democracies, and those that did not. From this I derive a set of prerequisites, potential pitfalls, and expected stages in the monarchical path toward democracy. This helps us to understand not only the democratic potential of the parliamentary experiments in the Arab monarchies, but also the role these parliaments play in the political life of these authoritarian regimes.

1 he Arab world lacks any democracies, yet we find elected parliaments in several Arab monarchies. Elections to these parliaments are often reasonably fair: if the elected parliaments had more power over the executive, these countries would be democratic, or close to it. What are we to make of these political systems, which are authoritarian by the standard measures, but which also incorporate major democratic elements? In the 1990s, those who study the Middle East looked for signs that the Arab world would join the third wave of democratization. These hopes were dashed - monarchies and republics alike remain authoritarian. More recently, some have suggested that the hints of liberalization seen in recent years have amounted to very little, or in fact have strengthened the existing authoritarian regimes. Daniel Brumberg, for example, finds in the Arab monarchies (and other liberalizing Arab autocracies) a "gradualism whose small steps trace the sad contours of an unvirtuous circle," which does not offer "a real path forward."1

In this article I compare the experiences of the existing parliaments in Arab monarchies with the experiences of monarchies with parliaments in other parts of the world. Some of these experiences were successful, in that weak parliaments became strong, and their countries democracies. Elsewhere these parliamentary experiences ended in a transition only to a different type of authoritarianism. These comparisons help us to identify some of the proximate barriers to the achievement of rule by parliamentary parties in the Arab monarchies, and bring crucial evidence to bear on whether, and how, these parliaments offer a way toward a more democratic future.

The discussion of constitutional monarchies offers an insight into a process of democratization that has received little attention in the transitions literature. This literature addresses the clear -cut and relatively sudden transitions of the type found in the third wave in Southern Europe and Latin America, where elections presaged an imminent transition to democracy.2 This is the sort of transition that many looked for in the Arab world in the 1990s, and I argue here that there is little reason to think that elections will lead quickly to democracy in any of the Arab monarchies. The comparisons with monarchies outside the region also advances our understanding of these-somewhat distinctive, even peculiar - authoritarian regimes.3 It is true that my analysis, here framed in terms of democratization, verges on what Jason Brownlee calls "democracy forecasting."4 Yet, an examination of the role of parliaments in these regimes, and the ways in which they do and do not constrain the executives, helps us to understand how these authoritarian regimes work.5 Parliaments are centrally important political institutions in these authoritarian regimes, defining the character of the regimes and shaping their relations with citizens.

CONSTITUTIONAL MONARCHY

The historical literature also provides us with a standard term - parliamentarism - to describe a monarchy in which political parties in the parliament determine the composition of the government, with the monarch having little voice. If the suffrage is universal, and the monarch (or an unelected second house) lacks substantial residual powers, such a system is a standard democracy. …

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