The Arab world’s ‘democracy deficit’ (JERUSALEM POST) By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE 04/09/12)
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The Middle East elections calendar is unusually crowded this year.
Fresh from its first free and fair parliamentary vote, Egypt is
slated to hold a presidential poll in May. Libyans, long in the grip
of Muammar Gaddafi’s one-man rule, will get to choose a
constitutional assembly in June. Tunisia held elections last October
and Moroccans voted for parliament a month later after approving a
plan to turn the country into a constitutional monarchy.
Long lamented for its “democratic deficit,” the Middle East and North
Africa may finally be joining the world of truly competitive
elections, free speech and political pluralism. Or not.
Scholars have debated for some time why the region has resisted
democracy, pointing to everything from Islam, an abundance of oil and
the Arab world’s perpetual conflict with Israel. Now, Eric Chaney, a
Harvard economist is offering a novel new theory that encompasses not
only the core Arab world but Muslim countries stretching from Morocco
In short, he traces the problem back to the early Middle Ages when
the early Muslims charged out of Mecca to conquer the Middle East and
North Africa, bringing with them a political model of military and
religious leadership that centuries later remains intact in much of
the Arab world.
As a result, Chaney expresses some doubts about whether the
experiment with democracy now underway in them Middle East will bring
an end to the region’s traditional autocracy.
“On the one hand, the results provide reasons to be cautiously
optimistic that the Arab Spring will lead to sustained democratic
change [because] they cast doubt on claims that Muslim theology, the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Arab culture are systematic obstacles
to democracy,” Chaney writes. “On the other hand, they provide
sobering evidence that the region’s democratic deficit has deep
His research comes as Egypt’s presidential elections were due to
reach a milestone with a deadline for candidates to file on Sunday.
While parliamentary elections went smoothly, the presidential vote
has been characterized by unexpected twists and turns. The Muslim
Brotherhood vowed to stay out of the vote and then reversed itself
and announced it was fielding candidate. The front-running Salafist
candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, has already been disqualified after it
was revealed that his mother held an American passport.
With Egypt’s new constitution yet to be written and the interim
military regime insisting it will retain special powers after the
transition to civilian rule, no one can say for sure what the powers
of the next president will actually be.
In his paper, which was published by the Washington-based Brookings
Institution last month, he notes that many Muslim countries have made
progress toward democracy, but those countries tend to be on the
outer edges of the Muslim world. They adopted the religion through
voluntary conversion and either ignored or quickly abandoned the
political institutions that were imposed on lands subject to military
conquests by the early caliphs and successor regimes.
Chaney describes those institutions as a power-sharing agreement
between military and religious leaders, which was incorporated into
Islamic law. The development of slave armies starting in the ninth
century enabled military rulers to fight wars abroad and maintain
political control at home without having to turn to the aristocracy
or merchant classes for taxes and recruits as autocrats in Europe
were compelled to do, creating the foundations of democratic rule.
Chaney bases his historical analysis on the state of democratic
rights in the world prevailing today. The widest democratic deficits
occur in the 28 modern-day countries that were wholly or partly under
Muslim rule in the year 1100.
These include countries that are Arab and non-Arab, which Chaney
asserts disproves that Arab culture is responsible. He dismisses the
influence of the Islamic religion as a factor by using data on
alcohol consumption as a litmus test for religiosity. Chaney found no
correlation between tea-totaling piety and the absence of democracy.
Likewise, he finds no link between the lack of democracy and a
country’s involvement in the six-decade long conflict with Israel,
which some scholars have identified as the cause for the region’s
What he did find is that the democratic-deficit countries showed
unusually high levels of government centralization, which he contends
backs up his historical thesis. In countries conquered by Arab armies
900 or more years ago, the government’s share of gross domestic
product is seven percentage points higher than in areas that were not
conquered by Arab armies. Their legal systems are “less hospitable”
to private finance and they have fewer trade unions.
Chaney concedes that the Arab world has undergone structural changes
since the end of World War II that make it more democracy-friendly
than in the past. The grassroots rebellion of the Arab Spring, he
said, have no precedent in the region and could portend a move to
true democracy, most notably in Tunisia.
But, he warned, the military-religious alliance that thwarted
democracy over the centuries is still very much present in countries
like Egypt and Yemen. Pledges by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and other
groups to play the democratic game will not necessarily be kept, he
“Recent history suggests that Islamists are just as likely to
establish autocratic rule as other groups in the absence of checks on
their power. Popular support for Islamists may undermine democratic
efforts if such groups are not checked by other contenders for
power,” Chaney said. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post 04/09/12)
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