Is the Middle East ready for democracy? President Bush’s State of the Union address argued that Middle Eastern democracy is a realistic short-term goal. A more pessimistic view, asserted Bush, “is mistaken, and condescending, to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government.”
Unfortunately, it is President Bush who is mistaken. Although the goal is laudable, his administration will be gravely disappointed with its effort to establish a stable democracy in any Arab nation home to a large Muslim population. That’s the verdict rendered by history, the contemporary reality of the region, and our own government experts.
Over the last three decades, a global expansion of democracy took place, most notably in Latin America, East Asia, and much of Europe. However, since the early 1970s, the Arab world has seen little evidence of improvements in political freedom or respect for human rights.
The existing “democratic deficit” in the Middle East is a massive obstacle to overcome. According to Freedom House, of the 14 Middle Eastern countries, only Israel and Turkey are electoral democracies. Not a single Arab Muslim country qualifies as an electoral democracy. The Arab Human Development Report 2002 constitutes a further, devastating critique of the Middle East. In this study, 30 Arab scholars dissect a region that trails in economic development, civil liberties and gender equality.
Most recently, political scientist Ronald Inglehart studied 21 years of responses to the “World Values Surveys,” which measure the values and beliefs of people in 70 countries, including 10 Islamic nations. Inglehart concludes that the prospects for democracy in any Islamic country seem particularly poor. Freedom House quantifies such pessimism and calculates that a non-Islamic country is three times more likely than an Islamic country to be democratic.
Why are Islamic countries’ democratic prospects so poor? It is true that, in most Muslim countries, a high level of popular support exists for the concept of democracy. Eighty-seven percent of those in Muslim countries agree with Winston Churchill that democracy may have its problems but it is better than any other form of government. In practice, however, overt support for democracy is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for democratic institutions to emerge. Other factors are necessary.
A liberal democracy requires three things: a system of representative government; a framework of liberal political norms and values; and social and institutional pluralism. Hypothetical support for representative government, absent tangible support for liberal political norms and values, and without the foundation of a pluralistic civil society, provides neither sufficient stimulus nor staying power for democracy to take root.
Today, the Middle East lacks the conditions, such as a democratic political history, high standards of living, and high literacy rates, which stimulated democratic change in, for example, central Europe and East Asia. Ironically, many Arab countries are ruled by authoritarian leaders who are more liberal than the citizenry they lead.
A classified Feb. 26, 2003, State Department report expressed doubt that installing a new regime in Iraq will foster the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Written by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the report argues that “even if some version of democracy took root…anti-American sentiment is so pervasive that Iraqi elections in the short term could lead to the rise of Islamic-controlled governments hostile to the United States.” Recent mass demonstrations by Iraq’s Shia majority do little to ease such fears.
President Bush proposes “to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, and to focus its new work on the development of free elections…in the Middle East.” Revealingly, the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars on democracy programs in the Middle East during the 1990s with no noticeable impact.
The ingredients for successful democracy are found in domestic political kitchens. Larry Diamond, co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, reminds us that, “Democracy is not a gift we as Americans can bestow on…any other people. It is an opportunity that each people must discover, grasp, and craft for themselves.”
Neither its inhospitable history nor contemporary reality guarantees that the Middle East will never democratize. Both, however, strongly suggest that the democratic journey, when it begins, will be slow, treacherous, and littered with setbacks.