[Previous] [Main Index] [Next]

Friday, May 7, 2004

THE DEMOCRATIC PROSPECTS OF THE ARAB WORLD: 7th of an 9-Article Series

This, the 7th article in our series on the new Bush initiative to promote democratic changes in the Arab world --- all 22 Arab countries at the start of 2003 despotic and ultimately dependent on the secret police for their survival, but with differing prospects for democratic development --- almost completes the series, focusing mainly on the overall democratic prospects of the 22 Arab countries. It's not new, this focus. At the end of the 6th article --- which ranked the Arab despotisms according to their democratic prospects --- the argument about their political future was left hanging fire. We still want to predict whether those better-situated Arab countries --- five or six, remember, with the most promising prospects --- will evolve into more solid electoral democracies in the near future.

INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS

Two-thirds of those promising countries are, it's true, pretty tiny: the small Gulf states and Jordan, the latter about 5 million in population. Even so, two of them --- Morocco and Algeria --- are the third and fourth largest of the 22 Arab countries: Egypt tops the slate with about 75 million people, followed by Sudan's 38 million, with Morocco and Algeria next in line. . . each around 32 million in population. The fate of Iraq --- with 25 million people the fifth largest of the 22 Arab countries --- is still shrouded by lots of uncertainty. For its worth, though --- as the 8th and final article in the series will show --- the buggy professor continues to believe that a transitional government, under UN auspices, will emerge on July 1st this year and prepare the country effectively for its first universal elections next January.

That belief, you might note, is in line with the views just vented in an interview by Bernard Lewis, the greatest scholar of Islam and the Middle East since World War II . . . a professor emeritus at Princeton now in his 80s:

Are you optimistic about the state of things there?

I'm cautiously optimistic about what's happening in Iraq. What bothers me is what's happening here in the United States.

Do you mean the controversy over the occupation? The pressure to pull out?

Yes, because the message that this is sending to people in that region is that the Americans are frightened, they want to get out. They'll abandon us the same as they did in '91. And you know what happened in '91.

Enough, however, about Iraq for the time being. It will be the center-stage focus of our 9th and last article in the series. For the time being, keep your attention riveted on the other Arab countries, 21 in number. (The 8th article, in case you are wondering, will probe Turkey's democratic development at length, explaining why it's not likely to be easily emulated by the Arab countries themselves.)

 

Part Two:
RIGHT NOW, THERE ARE NO ARAB ELECTORAL DEMOCRACIES


No, Not Unequivocally . . . Something Unique to the Arab Region of the World

Maybe so, but what about Algeria . . . discussed at length in the previous buggy article? Didn't it just experience an election for the presidency, monitored by 150 international observers, that was widely deemed as the freest and fairest ever held in the Arab world? Wasn't that election doubly impressive, considering that it was initiated and overseen by a government that had just completed a nasty, decade-long conflict, full of gore on both sides, to destroy Islamist terrorism on its soil?

The answer is yes, it is impressive. Still, commendable as the democratic opening has been, it doesn't make Algeria an electoral democracy; not fully. Suppose, to explain the point, that one of the opposition candidates had won the recent election. What then?

Well, most likely, the actual nature of power and rule in the country wouldn't have been noticeably altered. Since 1962, the year Algeria gained its independence from France, political and economic power in Algeria has been concentrated in a small coalition of dominant military and administrative elites, including the managers in charge of the oil and gas industries. Had President Abdelaziz Bouteflika lost the campaign for re-election, the winning candidate would still have had to come to terms with this entrenched elite and appointed a Prime Minister and Cabinet more or less identical to the existing one. At most, a handful of ministers might have different names. A little shuffling of the major members of the ruling coalition and clientele networks would also have ensued, including of course the new president himself --- just as, in the past, the dominant elite had violently eliminated or jailed a top-guy or two who looked like aggrandizing too much power at their expense, then closed ranks against all others. In short, whoever was president, power would still be heavily lodged in the hands of a dominant, largely unchanged cabal of elites.

To note this is not to denigrate the milestone nature of the recent political changes in Algeria, themselves genuinely encouraging. It is to show a certain hardheaded realism about the nature of how power is concentrated in Algeria, ruled by an overwhelmingly powerful coalition. Over time, of course, that coalition might broaden. It could open up to opposition politicians, including --- if they can be clearly identified --- moderate Islamist leaders who fully renounce terrorism and their endeavors to institute the Shari, Islamic law.

 

The Promising Arab Handful Classified

Where to place Algeria then in our buggy table that divides the countries of the world into solid liberal democracies, electoral democracies, hard and soft authoritarianisms, and quasi- and hard-line totalitarianism?

 

Somewhere along the fuzzy borderline that separates soft-authoritarian systems from electoral democracies . . . not far from Morocco and two or three of the small Gulf states, plus possibly Jordan. All of these, as you might recall from the previous buggy article, were ranked by Freedom House as in the partly free category . . . not far below Turkey or Indonesia on a host of measures such as political and civil liberties, press freedom, women's rights, and the like.

Those uncertain of their geography, by the way, might keep in mind that Turkey --- the most democratic Muslim country in the Middle East: in fact, the only --- is about Egypt's size: 69 million to be more precise. Indonesia, in the Pacific, is a giant country in population, the fourth largest in the world: roughly, 230 million. Literate and well-educated compared to the Arab countries, it will have its first democratic elections this fall.

 

Part Two:
CAN ARAB COUNTRIES, GIVEN ARAB CULTURE, CREATE AND SUSTAIN DEMOCRACIES?


A Natural Enough Question, No?

In part, those who are skeptical that Arab societies are capable of democratic development do have arguments that need to be dealt with: above all, the fact that Arab countries have been immune to four waves of democratic development that have produced 30-35 solid liberal democracies since the end of the 18th century and several dozen electoral ones, with maybe 20-25 of those having good prospects for further liberal evolution in the next couple of decades. Is that immunity something inlaid in the fabric of Arab life?

Not necessarily, a purposefully ambiguous answer. Consider the charges that underlie this criticism, and the buggy responses. When you do, some of the ambiguity --- not all of it --- will be have faded.

 

The First Charge:
Muslim Countries Themselves Can't Sustain Democracy


The Charge Analyzed

On the face of it, this charge can't be dismissed out of hand. That's because no majority Muslim country is ranked by Freedom House as free except two tiny African countries:

1) Mali, a country of 11 million --- overwhelmingly poor and Muslim --- just to the south of Algeria; 2) and Senegal, roughly the same size in population and just to the west of Mali, with a coastal line on the Atlantic. (See the map at the site of the CIA World Factbook.)

Remember though: impressive as the scores mopped up by Senegal and Mali turn out to be, they not only are small, they also rank in the bottom sub-division of the wholly free countries at 2.5. 1.0 is the best rank (see the Freedom House rankings for 190 countries in the previous buggy article )

To find a large Muslim country as you move down Freedom House's rankings --- Muslims themselves, remember, numbering about 1.3 billion, roughly a fifth the world's population (Christians of various kinds adding up to over 2 billion) --- you have to jump down to the "partly free" category, itself further sub-divided into 6 groupings starting at 3.0 (the best score) and ending at 5.5. The first two large Muslim countries that you'll encounter are Indonesia and Turkey . . . both scoring 3.5.

Partly free countries, it should be added --- at any rate those at 3.0 or 3.5 --- have to be electoral democracies, where the elections are deemed free and fair and determine the major office-holders in a country: those in the executive like a governing President or a Prime Minister and the majority in the parliament. What keeps them out of the "free category" is usually noticeable problems with civil and political rights, including a wholly free and independent media, as well as drawbacks in fostering a rule of law and hence transparency and accountability on the part of major office-holders. That said, a country can be ranked "free" --- say, Mexico (a rating of 2.0) or Brazil (2.5) --- and still encounter problems with a rule of law . . . which can be measured, among other things, by corruption and tax evasion (the size of the underground economy). Both Mexico and Brazil are plagued by both. Recall though: Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica are ranked higher as free countries . . . Uruguay itself given a score of 1.0, with Chile and Costa Rica each getting 1.5, impressive in their own right.

 

Is The Charge About Islamic Countries Then Sound?

No, not fully anyway. Here is Freedom House's recent summary of the Muslim peoples of the world, 1.3 billion in number.

[A brief word or two about Nigeria, roughly half Muslim, seems in order. In five decades of turbulent independence, it had its first ever civilian transfer of power in 2003, the election judged generally fair and free. It is a blatantly corrupt country; it also has marked problems in fostering a free media and a rule of law. Despite its recent election, sporadic violence --- often with hundreds of deaths --- has erupted between Islamist fundamentalists running amuck in the northern part of the country and Christians living there. From time to time, Christian militias then carry out retaliatory massacres, something that happened just this last week, early May 2004]

Of these five partly free Muslim countries, those with the best democratic records (or prospects) are Turkey and Indonesia. Turkey has to be considered a solid electoral democracy, especially after the moderate fundamentalists who won the last parliamentary elections in 2002 took power . . . the new Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once forced out of power in the late 1990s by military pressure. Indonesia will have its first free and likely fair election this coming fall. Immediately, a question prompts itself . . .

 



 

Part Three:
ANOTHER CHARGE: IT'S NOT SO MUCH ISLAM ITSELF THAT IMPEDES DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST,
RATHER ITS SPECIFCALLY ARAB CULTURE AND TRADITIONS


The Charge Analyzed

Those who see such problems note the alarming degree of mistrust and suspicion that pervade much of Arab life, dividing it into tribal-clan groups, plus religious differences that pit so many groups against one another in a constant struggle for power and influence, especially in a pervasive Arab political culture that --- for 1400 years --- is marked by winner-take-all-political rule and conspiratorial opposition as the only way to challenge it. In particular, the group conflicts and rife all-pervading mistrust in Arab life --- symbolized by the Arab saying, "my cousin and I against the stranger, my brother and I against my cousin" --- tend to pit

  • Shiites against Sunnis where they coexist as in Iraq or Saudi Arabia or Lebanon (Hezbollah).


  • or pit Arab Muslims against Arab Christians, about 3-4% of the total Arab populations . . . as in Lebanon again despite the end of a 15 year blood-splotched civil war that had Sunnis, Shiites, Palestinians, and different Christian militias killing one another with glee in that gruesome period.


  • or , earlier in the interwar period, when the British --- dominant in Iraq --- tried to use the small Assyrian Christian population as their preferred military elite. Or, again, Arabs against Kurds as in Syria or Iraq.


  • or, as in Syria, breakaway Islamic minorities like the Alawites --- about 12% of the Syrian 15 million population --- that forms the tribal-clan basis of the Baathist dictatorship of Bashir al-Assad.


  • or, as in Jordan, where the Hashemite dynasty --- facing a Palestinian majority --- relies ultimately on a Bedouin military for its ultimate survival. Or, come to that, the Berber-speaking minority in Algeria pitted against the much larger Arab-speaking populations, including Berber descendants in the urban areas.


 

The Charge's Soundness?

So much for the criticisms here about group-conflict and rooted mistrust along the fault-lines of familial or tribal-clan divisions. Neither of these criticisms is wrong --- only, it has to be said for a surer grasp of Arab democratic prospects, not insuperable obstacles either, at any rate for the tiny handful of Arab countries that we have singled out as better situated for eventually becoming at least electoral democracies with prospects of liberalizing change into the future. In particular, consider the following three sets of qualifying responses.



The First Response:

As a general thing, it's true: multiethnic societies where such pervasive mistrust and suspicion are historically rooted --- marked with ups-and-downs in violent eruptions over the decades and generations --- have a more difficult time evolving into solid electoral democracies, never mind liberal ones, than ethnically homogeneous societies. That's been true even in West Europe, witness Britain's futile efforts to absorb all of Ireland for centuries, with the violent fall-out still echoing right through the last decades of the previous century in the north; or in Spain with its Basque minority; or in France that faces terrorism that has been ongoing for two decades in Corsica.

Then, too, if the history of Yugoslavia's break-up shows anything, it shows that the effort to force hostile ethnic groups to live together under the same government will generally work against any democratic evolution. It took a decade of fighting in Bosnia and later Kosovo, plus ethnic cleansing there and in Croatia, before electoral democracies evolved in 3 of the four fighting states --- Yugoslavia itself (now Serbia-Montenegro), Croatia, and Bosnia --- emerged, with Slovenia in the north sufficiently democratic to now be a member of the EU and Macedonia in the south, despite some ethnic mixing, to sustain an electoral democratic system too. Bosnia itself, of course, not least thanks to peacekeepers on its soil --- but also the failure of any one ethnic group to eliminate the other in three years of fierce battle, massacres, and ethnic horrors --- has sustained a loose con-federal system among its territorially separated populations.

Were Iraq able to do that, we could be more confident about its own future evolution . . . a matter we'll return to.

 

A Second Response:

Iraq and Lebanon, possibly too Syria with its Alawite Islamic group regarded as almost heretical by mainline Sunnis and Shiites, are something of an exception in the Arab world what with their large Shiite or Kurdish or Christian populations compared to the Sunni Arabs. Even Egypt, where a repressive dictatorship has intensified its hold over the country in the last two decades after a brief opening in the 1970s under President Sadat before his assassination, is overwhelmingly Arab and Muslim, with its tiny Christian minority (mainly Coptic) about 5% of the 70 million populations, no more. And though the Copts were on the receiving end of increased Islamist fundamentalist hostility and even limited violence in the 1990s, the general destruction of fundamentalist challenges to the regime --- completed in the last few years --- has helped to an extent to calm Coptic fears. Similarly, the Berber-language movement --- even if ethnically based --- is as much an economically motivated protest as it is ethnic, particularly since few Algerians who speak Arab probably don't have mainly Berber ancestors in their family lineage.

Otherwise, religious-ethnic conflicts don't dominate most of the Arab countries. The major splits run between modernizing groups --- including most of the ruling elites and a large part of the better educated middle classes, despite tensions between them --- and Islamist fundamentalisms of various sorts, with the line between those who say they are moderates and more outspoken radicals hard to make sense of in most of the Arab countries. Or maybe, come to that, in all of them.

 

A Third Reponse:

The claims about tribal-clan divisions in the 22 Arab countries, it needs to be added immediately, are more soundly based. The elites in the privileged tribal-clans form the well-springs of most clientele networks and the corruption and nepotism that flourish among them, plus occasionally co-opted elites, especially with independent financial power, as satellite groups.

Another way of putting this: except for Morocco and Egypt with their long historical lineage as distinctive national groups with a clear national past going back millennia --- far before the Arab conquests and Muslim conversion (voluntary or not) --- scarcely any Arab country has a solidly anchored national identity to absorb the tribal-clan or sectarian groups and create a fully shared sense of being Iraqis, Lebanese, Algerians, Libyans, Saudis, or Syrians, just to name a few Arab countries here.

 



All This On the One Hand

On the other hand --- and there is another side here in the analysis --- much the same can be said about most of Latin America with the exception of Mexico, Argentina, Chile, or Uruguay, or maybe Brazil. The large Indian populations in the rest of Latin America are generally looked down with disdain by the dominant Mestizo or Mestizo-White or just plain White elites in power or with better education. In turn, the whiter the dominant ruling groups --- whether in an overwhelming coalition in power or among competing elites for electoral outcomes --- the more they try to distinguish themselves from the Mestizos as well.

Even Mexico, where the most enduring legacy of its revolution was to create a strong sense of Mexican identity among the Mestizos, has a large Indian population --- probably 20-30% (official governments figures are ludicrously low on this score) --- that is discriminated again, not to mention about 8-9% of the population who seem to claim they are of pure Spanish blood, something ludicrous in its own right, given hundreds of years of marriage across ethnic lines, but sustained by myths and prestige and whiter-looking skin.

Still, the most encouraging trends in Latin America since the start of the 1980s has been the enshrinement everywhere of electoral democracy, with Chile and Uruguay and Costa Rica coming close to being sold liberal democracies ---- admittedly, the Indian populations are very small there, though Costa Rica has both Indian and African minorities --- and with Brazil and Argentina and Bolivia increasingly liberal in their developments as well. Peru's democratic development is more uncertain, as is Ecuador's, Venezuela's and Columbia. Even so, they remain electoral democracies among difficult circumstances, as do all of Central America and now Mexico itself.