The Future of Democracy in the Middle East
Reasons for Lack of Democratization in the Middle East:
One of the explanations in the literature for the democratic deficit in the Middle East is the expansion of the powers of the state. However, one may argue that the expansion of the power of the Middle Eastern state is not unique, as it is part of a universal phenomenon in the twentieth century where we observe an expansion in the role of the state in the West, under Communism, and among third-world countries. Indeed, as a result of decolonization, we find many Middle East regimes undertaking the task of nation building, including industrialization, economic development, spreading education, health and social services, and owning large industrial enterprises. As a result, the state created the huge bureaucratic apparatus.
Lack of Development of the Bourgeois Class and Private Sector
This expansion in the power of the state came at the expense of the bourgeoisie class and the private sector. Moderate and radical Middle Eastern governments did not trust the bourgeoisie class or the market forces to engage in economic development. Indeed, the bourgeoisie class was distrusted by the moderate pro-Western governments on the grounds that this class has immediate interest, namely profit-making, and therefore it cannot be trusted with the task of economic development. That is why they justified the state’s engagement in economic activities. Likewise, the socialists and revolutionary governments distrusted the private sector completely and thought of it as a tool in the hands of neocolonialism. The end result is the suppression of the bourgeoisie class, confiscation of its assets and the nationalization of its property. For many of the revolutionary leaders in the Middle East, independence and freedom meant freedom from colonialism but not economic freedom or freedom for the individual.
Development of Military Infrastructure
This brings me to the second factor that accounts for the expansion of the power of the Middle East states. Many of those governments adopted defensive modernization. By this I mean the states created huge military infrastructures and armies and internal security apparatus. The justification for this military buildup was to contain neocolonialism and imperialism and to keep the West and the United States out of the region. The need to build these huge military forces was also necessitated by interstate wars, including the Arab/Israeli wars, Iraq/Iran wars, as well as the civil wars and internal violence including the ethnic and religious conflict in Iraq, the Algerian civil war, and the ethnic cleansing that has been taken place in Southern Sudan. All of these factors provided the regimes with the justification to expand their armies.
Table 2 shows the amount of resources that the governments in the Middle East allocate for the military. For instance, out of the total Middle East imports, 5.5% of these total imports are devoted to military equipment. By comparison to Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe, the Middle East appropriates more of its imports to the military than these regions. Likewise, the Middle East governments allocate annually a higher percentage of their budget and their annual GNP to the military than the other regions of the world. Moreover, in the Middle East, the military personnel make up a higher percentage of the labor force than other areas of the world. The net result is that the Middle East governments have access to vast military forces, which were used as means of oppression of dissident movements like what happened in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and in the Sudan.
The Curse of Oil
In addition to these two factors, there is the curse of oil as an impediment to democratization in the Middle East. The governments of the Middle East over the last 50 plus years have won over their people by doling out huge economic rewards and social services rather than expanding the circle of participatory politics. Certainly the availability of vast external rents in terms of oil revenues, significant foreign assistance from the United States and the Soviet Union, Western Europe, as well as income from tourism, and external borrowing, enable these governments to render an array of services to the people at low or no cost. In the West, the governments collect taxes from the people to be able to offer such services. With the exception of Israel, taxes in the Middle East are the lowest in the world on income, capital gains, and profits. There have not been compelling reasons for Middle Eastern governments to tax their people because they have plenty of external rents. In return for providing for the social needs of the people, the governments expected loyalty and non-involvement in politics.
When the price of oil goes up significantly, as is the case in 2006, the governments have a lot of resources at their disposal to dole out social and economic benefits. I would like to point out that the time when these governments allowed for political liberalization was in the mid-1980s. That is the time when the price of oil plummeted and reached $7 a barrel. During this time, the governments could not continue to dispense such services and that’s why they were forced to liberalize. By the mid-1990s, the price of oil went up, giving the states more resources and many of the democratic reforms were retracted. Based upon this analysis, the future of democracy in the Middle East today is not too promising in view of the fact that the price of oil vacillates between $50 and $70 a barrel.
A fourth perspective that is used to explain the weakness of democratization in the Middle East is the political culture. This is a very controversial topic and has several facets. Some scholars who use the political culture to explain the persistence of Middle Eastern autocracy attribute such a phenomenon to the patriarchal and authoritarian nature of the Middle Eastern family. They argue that the family is based upon the patriarchal values in which sons, daughters, wife, or wives give almost absolute obedience and reverence to the father figure. That kind of a family structure does not promote inquisitiveness, freedom of thought, or independence. President Sadat of Egypt or King Hussein of Jordan would refer to themselves as the father figure of the Jordanian family and the father of the Egyptian family. What is the implication of that? As a father, your sons and daughters are expected to obey you. The proponents of this perspective conclude that the cause of democratization will not be served by the pervasiveness of such attitudes.
The Role of Islam
Other scholars attribute the weakness of democracy in the Middle East to the role of Islam. On the one hand, there is a vast amount of literature that argues that Islam is supportive of democracy. There is also a counter-scholarship that Islam promotes authoritarianism. Here, there are writers who point to certain aspects of Islam that do not favor democracy. In particular, they point out that in Islam there is no separation between religion and politics, that Muslims are supposed to be guided by the Holy Book and the divine will, and that in Islam sovereignty lies in God and not in the people. This means that the ruler as well as the ruled are accountable to God.
This conception of Islam does not give room for questioning the ruler or promoting governmental public accountability. Such writers further contend that Islam places more importance upon the community, argues that the state has a collective responsibility to the community, and that the individual is simply a member of the larger community; as such the individual has obligations toward the Islamic community. This conception is at the expense of the rights of the individual because the community is the one that matters, not the individual. Finally, unlike Christianity, where the church offered a model for resistance to the empire or the emperor, in Islam there is no organized clergy. And that is why imams, and especially in the Sunni Islam, came to be dependent upon the state, and as such, they became defenders of the status quo. Of course, the cumulative effect of all of these arguments is the reinforcement of the authoritarian tendencies.
Lack of Civil Society Institutions
Another explanatory perspective that is crucial for the consolidation of democracy is the presence of civil society institutions. This concept refers to political parties, interest groups, women’s associations, labor unions, and professional associations. Though some of these groups exist in the Middle East, they have to be licensed by the Ministry of the Interior. And you bet the Ministry of the Interior will not issue a license for any party if it is against the government. In addition, many of these informal, civil society institutions promote personalistic interest or private interest. Nowadays you hear a lot about Iraq and the fragmentation in Iraq and how tribal loyalty is limiting the establishment of such civil societies.
The Influence of External Powers
Finally, I want to talk about the external powers and inquire about their role in contributing to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East. The two colonial powers, Britain and France, did not promote democracy in the Middle East, nor did they come to the Middle East with a Bill of Rights in their hands. On the contrary, both colonial powers suppressed popular movements that were formed to resist colonialism, and they installed feudal, oligarchic regimes in parts of the Middle East such as the royal family in Jordan and in Iraq before 1958.
The two colonial powers were succeeded by the bitter Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Between 1945 and 1990, our primary interests in the Middle East were not human rights, democracy, or popular participation. Our primary concern was national security interest, access to oil, and containing the Soviet Union. As a result, we ignored the issues of human rights.