Democratization in the Middle East and North Africa: Challenges, Explanations and Suggestions for the Future


This paper examines possible reasons why democratization has not occurred in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), including the persistence of authoritarian regimes, the history behind the regimes, and other hindrances to democracy. The paper outlines the history of U.S. global policies and attitudes towards the MENA region, as well as the implications of such policies and attitudes, especially their possible effects on the democratization process. Current protests in the region are discussed, as well as possible outcomes of these ongoing demonstrations. The author offers suggestions on what should be changed in United States (U.S.) and global policies if international actors hope to make democratization in MENA a priority. Ultimately, the paper examines what we can hope for in MENA in the near and relative distant future.

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    The Middle East has long been a crux of rich culture and civilization and remains such today. The region is endowed with exotic spices and materials in an arid land where sands hide the region’s most prized possession, oil. The Middle East and North Africa (hereafter MENA) is home to the largest oil fields in the world. Since industrialization and the replacement of coal with oil as the world’s primary fuel, MENA has drawn the world’s interest. This interest in combination with imperialistic attitudes after World War I motivated the winning Western powers to divide the former Ottoman Empire into separate nation states. Of course, leaders that carved out their spheres of influence were ignorant of the diversity of peoples and cultures occupying the actual lands they divided by drawing lines on a map. This arbitrary division led to discordant societies in many of the MENA states. A widespread turning away from everything Western after the colonial powers left the region in the mid 1900s, combined with oil rents, unindustrialized economies, and Cold War politicking, led the states of MENA away from hopes of democratization and created situations in which repressive authoritarian leaders seized power or conservative Western-supported monarchies in the oil-rich Gulf States thrived. Now that the West, the U.S. in particular, has developed an interest in the well-being of the people of MENA, circumstances may be too cemented for democratization to take root.

    Cultural Division in MENA

    MENA is home to five major and distinct ethnic groups; the Turks, Persians, Kurds, Jews and Arabs. There are numerous sub-divisions and tribes within these four categories. Calling an Iranian Persian an Arab is not only incorrect but can also be highly offensive. The West remained nearly oblivious to these distinctions in the interwar period, and many Westerners remain ignorant today. Religion is a significant factor for the people of MENA, and many people in the region identify themselves with their religion before any other characteristic. MENA is well-known for being home to a vast Muslim population, but the area is also home to numerous religious minorities, namely Christians and Jews, but also smaller religious groups, such as the Druze, Maronites, and Alawites. These religious minorities were not subject to Islamic laws related to personal matters under the Ottomans; these groups were permitted to use their own religion as basis for determining rules for divorce, marriage, and other family matters (Gerner 1137).

    Prior to the creation and expansion of the Ottoman Empire throughout MENA, the region was controlled by a feudal system not unlike those of medieval Europe. In this arrangement the numerous ethno-cultural groups of MENA were able to coexist; large landowners sought to expand their land and their power by buying out the smaller lords’ property, creating substantial stretches of control. After the Ottomans took over official power, the landowners agreed to cooperate with the ruling Turks, and in exchange the Empire allowed the landowners to keep their land and provided them some continued autonomy. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the Ottomans began to centralize and consolidate their waning power which upset the powerful landowners who proceeded to encourage and support the emergence of nationalist and independence movements. Of course, the landowners simply wanted to maintain the status quo and power which could no longer be preserved under the Ottomans. When the Ottoman Empire fell after World War I, new nation states were created which allowed the traditional landowning class to return to its original place of power. This time the landowning elite did not want to risk the threat of a resurgence of the nationalist movements it had supported to help oust the Ottomans. To minimize this risk they proceeded to force out foreigners and minorities from all entrepreneurial positions, and repressed and pushed the new and emerging middle class down into a more subordinate, “traditional” role beneath the landowners. Now that the landowning elite had reestablished themselves, they continued to repress citizens sufficiently to maintain their power position and the status quo through the industrialization of the region. This part of the elite class in MENA has largely stayed out of the political eye and has, therefore, continued to maintain its place near the top of the socio-economic pyramid. Centuries have elapsed since the Ottoman Empire first emerged, yet the region persists with the same landowning elite class at the top of socio-economic pyramid (Halperin 1137). In the past, this landowning class has stayed out of the political scene. In an effort to appear more liberal, MENA governments have recently implemented changes including creating parliaments and councils; the same socio-economic landowning class that had evolved since the feudal system emerged as members sitting in these parliaments and councils (King 10). The different ethnic and religious sects within MENA society have also begun to assert themselves, and in some cases, earned seats in figurehead parliaments and begun to demand more tangible power and control of the way the country is being run.

    The two primary factions within the Muslim population—known for their long struggle—are the more widespread Sunni sect and the smaller Shi’ite sect of Islam. Iran is the only country in MENA that is governed by a Shi’ite government. However, there are significant Shi’ite populations in other MENA countries, some of which are in fact home to Shi’ite majorities governed by a Sunni minority; for example, Iraq  before U.S. occupation, and Bahrain. The minorities are often excluded or repressed by the government; the most notable example is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in which chemical weapons were used against the Kurdish minority. The divisions within the people of MENA are only strengthened by their strife, largely the result of continued socio-economic disparities among the people. The turmoil that has ravaged the region for decades has resulted in unreliable, unfair, sometimes repressive, corrupt, elite ruling classes that are the only prosperous group while in the rest of the region’s people struggle to manage. This setting has led to conditions in which the people of MENA cannot always rely on their governments for support, services, or protection; consequently, the people choose to rely on their tribe, ethnic group, or religious sect because these patterns have deepened the lines of division in the populations of MENA countries (Gerner 290).

    Islam and Life in MENA

    Islam is a large part of routine life in MENA. The religion has aspects that address not only personal and spiritual lives of followers but also guide their public lives. Islam does not dictate any specific form of government; the religion stipulates only that whatever form of government emerges must reflect the ethics and morals laid out in the life and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed through the concepts of shurah and shari’ah law. Shurah is essentially the idea of consultation between a leader and the people. This concept is a major aspect of Islam that many scholars who advocate the spread of democracy in MENA point to as evidence that the Islamic culture is compatible with the ideals of democracy. Shari’ah is Islamic law based the holy text of the Koran and the examples shown by the Prophet Mohammed’s life. Most of the states in MENA have adopted their own judicial systems for criminal matters that, although guided by the moral tenets of Islam, are not precisely Shari’ah law. Personal matters, however, are mostly ruled by Shari’ah law; these matters include those relating to marriage, divorce, death, inheritance, and family life (Gerner 325).

    In attempts to recover and diversify economically after World War II, many states in MENA implemented Import-Substituting Industrialization (hereafter ISI) strategies. ISI was chosen with hopes that any future global economic shocks would affect the individual economies of MENA countries because of less interdependence, increasingly high unemployment would been driven down, and the economies would ultimately be more prosperous assuming lower costs of production because of proximity. Ultimately, ISI proved ineffective. In the midst of failing economic strategies, corrupt and elitist governments, high unemployment, a growing wealth gap, and urbanization in recent decades, the people of MENA have turned to their faith for support to guide them through difficult times. In some MENA countries the Muslim community, the mosque and support given by Islamic groups lend the only support upon which the people can depend. This reliance and gratitude has resulted in the emergence of a political Islamic movement in many MENA states. Civil society in MENA is usually regulated if it exists. The mosque is the one safe place for people to meet to discuss events and needed changes, and to organize in efforts to take action. Consequently, Islamic based groups have become and continue to be the forces of change and activism in most MENA countries. Even where civil society is permitted, as in Turkey, Islamic groups have emerged as forces on the political scene in the form of political parties. Contrary to what some Westerners believe, the vast majority of these groups are not extremist; they work to provide social and public services that the government is not providing because government is either unable or unwilling. These groups focus on providing what they can with volunteers from the communities they serve. Among these positive political Islam groups are the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, the Refah party in Turkey, and al-Nahda in Tunisia. To some extent the Palestinian group, Hamas, falls into this category; however, this group is marked as a terrorist group for reverting to force tactics in some situations. Hamas does provide nearly all of the public services in the occupied territories in Israel. Unfortunately, a few groups have emerged that are extreme in their beliefs that they should fight a jihad against non-Muslim states, and these are the ones that we hear about (Gerner 334). Whether the West likes the situation or not, political Islam is unlikely to erode anytime in the foreseeable future. It is almost necessary until the states and government of MENA become capable of providing and truly governing their populations.

    The Economies and Governments within MENA

    The countries of MENA are by no means politically advanced. MENA is home to failed states that cannot control affairs within their borders and to overly repressive states that micromanage and repress any semblance of protest that arises. According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2010 Global Data only one country, Israel, in the Middle East and North Africa is Free. A striking majority (78%) of the MENA countries are not free and only three are partly free (Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey). The incidence of not free countries in this region is greater than any other. Only two of the MENA countries are electoral democracies, Israel and Turkey. Four countries in MENA scored the lowest score possible in either their political rights or civil liberties (or both in Libya’s case). Refer Table 1 and Figure 1 for more details.

    Morocco is home to some of the largest phosphate deposits in the world but sought to diversify the economy to prevent the emergence of a rent state as did most of the major oil producers. Lastly, Israel is an anomaly in MENA regarding many issues including their economy. Israel relies heavily on foreign aid and deals significantly internationally, especially in military supplies and technology, to keep its large sophisticated army prepared. These four countries now use economic strategies that focus upon exporting manufactured goods. The idea is to specialize in the production of several—but not all goods—with low costs and high quality to make profits by trading internationally; meanwhile they educate their labor force so that the country is not easily replaced (Richards and Waterbury 27-8).

    MENA is home to the rent state. These are states which have significant, in some cases, huge, oil or other natural resource reserves. MENA is also home to huge deposits of phosphates, especially in Jordan and Morocco. In these states, the government controls the market for natural resources through the public sector. This control allows the government to receive the cash inflow from the capital earned by selling the natural resource to international buyers. This income is the largest proportion of the states’ total income and enables to government to have significant fiscal resources for use at its discretion. This revenue source contributes to the persistence of a rich-poor gap in rent states where the elite is exceedingly wealthy but the majority of the population lives near or below the poverty level. Countries throughout MENA produce immense quantities of oil each day with nine countries producing over a million barrels of oil each day; among these countries are, Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Libya (“CIA World Factbook”). Since the governments in rent states receive the income directly, these governments have enough income to eliminate or lessen the need to tax their citizenry. Given that little of the government’s income is from the people, the government does not need to provide political rights and representation to the people to establish legitimacy. The wealthiest rent states, the Gulf States, enjoy a wide array of public services provided by the government at no cost to them. These states are home to some of the more repressive MENA regimes in terms of political rights and civil liberties. In other rent states where the income is not as substantial and populations are larger, the rich-poor gap is significant and apparent, as in Yemen and Iraq (Richards and Waterbury 22). Until recently, the majority of the rent states in MENA were home to long-standing monarchies or authoritarian leaders with remarkably stable governments despite their repressive tendencies.

    Relations between the United States and MENA

    The U.S. presence in MENA following WWII was largely in effort to combat the spread of communism during the Cold War. During this attempt to quarantine the Russian influence, the U.S. supplied military assistance to several regimes including the Mujahedeen in which Osama Bin Laden participated. The U.S. supported the non-democratic regimes in Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf States, and at times Egypt and Iran. Following the Cold War, the U.S. continues some types of foreign aid to this region to protect oil interests. This foreign support allows for increased prevalence of corruption in this expanse of the world.

    September 11, 2001

    Americans remember the details of events that day; what they were doing, how they learned the news, and how they felt. On that September day, the United States of America was attacked on its own soil. Four commercial planes were hijacked by Al Qaeda terrorists; one was flown into the Pentagon and two more into the World Trade Center, the symbols of U.S. economic power; the last was said to have been bound for the White House but was diverted to an empty field by the passengers on board. After the first stage of grief, America snapped to action. Immediate approval was granted to enter Afghanistan and search for Osama bin Laden whose organization, Al Qaeda, was responsible for the attack. Unfortunately, Washington’s neo-conservatives politicians used the patriotism of the people to find support for war and power unrelated to 9/11, Al Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden. U.S. policies towards MENA moved from having international support, including some Middle Eastern, to pursue Al Qaeda and the Taliban government into Afghanistan and snubbing the advice of the global community.

    As a result of the structure of the oil rent state, the lack of civil society, the diverse and divided peoples, the failed or unbalanced economic systems, and the history of exploitation by power countries to advance their purposes, many MENA regimes are fragile. This statement is supported by data from the Center for Systemic Peace. Afghanistan scored a 22 (on a 0-25 scale with 25 being the most fragile) signally extreme fragility. Iraq (19), Pakistan (16), and Yemen (16) are all considered fragile. Iran (15) and Egypt (13) have serious fragility. Lebanon (10), Saudi Arabia (10), Turkey (10), Syria (9) and Israel (8) have moderate fragility. Six MENA countries are indicated as engaged in ongoing armed conflict. Of the seventeen MENA countries examined, only three have polity IV scores that are positive; Israel (10), Lebanon (7) and Turkey (7). Two, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, scored negative tens. Three others were close to zero; Egypt (-3), Jordan (-3) and Yemen (-2) (Marshall and Jeggers). The stability of regimes in MENA has by no means been helped by Western interference. In recent years, that the U.S. and the World at large have begun to sing a different tune; the U.S. seems to now not only want democracy in MENA but also the best for the people of MENA and their increased rights, freedoms, and capacity to live and work happily in the region.

    In the early 2000’s, public knowledge in the U.S. of MENA increased; people began to pay more attention than they had to U.S. involvement in the region during the Cold War. In Iraq, insurgents used guerilla tactics as they had approximately a decade prior but this time against the U.S. These tactics prove successful in continued conflict with the major militaries, the Soviets before and the U.S. now. Since shortly after 9/11, democracy became a priority of the U.S. in MENA. Members of the U.S. government cite the Democratic Peace theory that holds that democracies do not fight democracies as one reason to promote the conversion in MENA. With this U.S. signal, many regimes in MENA renamed institutions within their governments to sound more democratic. They made concessions to appear or even become more democratic. Some MENA countries began holding elections, although in many cases they were not fair or free and represented only a poor representation of popular wishes. In attempts to seem more democratic, MENA regimes eagerly agreed to general broad statements concerning reforms and making efforts to become democratic but never committing to specifics (Dalacoura 965-68).

    Post 9/11, the U.S. objectives lie with the elimination of terrorist groups and punishing regimes that harbor terror organizations. The U.S. has accepted the abuse of peoples’ rights by MENA governments claiming they are trying to locate and arrest terrorists. Thus, regimes changed aspects of their structure to appear more democratic but in reality they remained authoritarian. This behavior permits the survival of regimes that repress their people (Dalacoura 972-77).

    Promotion of Democracies and the Fight against Terrorism

    The promotion of democracies in MENA is a logical policy choice for the U.S. with limitations. Primarily, the U.S. wants democratization in MENA to impede the operations of terrorist organizations within MENA countries. The rationale linking democratization to the hindrance of terrorism follows: people may be drawn to terrorism because of harsh or ineffective governments, and problems with present situations such as, continued U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, causing people to feel threatened. If frustrations with current authoritarian regimes are causing people to be drawn to terrorism, then international relations could improve by moving toward a freer, participatory system, assuming democratization reduces dissatisfaction with government.

    The Image of the United States

    In order for MENA to be receptive to U.S. assistance in the democratization process, the U.S. must find a way to alter its image. Perceptions of the U.S. include an imperialistic and capitalistic country pursuing goals under the ruse of humanitarian justifications. Blatant violations of agreement specifications could cause the U.S. to be viewed as a biased mediator and as being “all talk” when the U.S. claims to want to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is amenable to all parties (Dalacoura 972). The promotion of U.S. democracy in MENA is a position supported by many American policymakers; however, the U.S. has strong interests other than democratization, (such as oil, counterterrorism, Israel, and the containment of WMDs,) that may take precedent. U.S. support for authoritarian regimes in MENA will continue as long as they facilitate access to oil and support the U.S. efforts to eliminate terrorist organizations. To earn trust and make the democratization promoting process more successful, the U.S. would have to demonstrate an interest and verify democratization as a priority. Part of the dealings with authoritarian regimes that must change is how the U.S. approaches top-down changes even if they are towards democratization. Currently the U.S. will praise an authoritarian regime if it expands rights or liberties but remains autocratic; the U.S. should support these liberalizations but clarify that remaining authoritarian is without U.S. support.

    The idea propagated by some American and Western political figures that democracy is the cure for terrorism is false. Terrorist organizations exist and operate in democratic countries, the IRA and the ETA being two European examples. New and unstable democracies are especially threatened by terrorist groups because an objective of many radical organizations is to prove that the social contract between the people of a country and its government is being breached by the government. Not having the capacity to protect citizens can threaten the legitimacy of a government. This absence of faith may cause regression toward authoritarianism because people become more willing to surrender rights in exchange for security (Freeman 40-59).These perceptions have in part been the basis of an anti-western movement of MENA. This development is paralleled by a similar anti-Middle Eastern or anti-Muslim movement in the West. While westerners are suspicious of activities, movements, and policies of MENA countries, many of the people of MENA and their governments are suspicious of Western and U.S. policies. Many of the people in MENA feel that the War on Terror has morphed into a War on Islam, causing feelings of fear, offence and, outrage. The people of MENA as seen by westerners have been shaped by statements made by euro-centric Western leaders, with little acknowledgement of advancements made by MENA or Asian countries. The Western way was portrayed as the only proper way to run a country. In some circles in MENA, Westernization and modernization are equivalent. Modernization has been resisted because people in parts of MENA do not want their culture assimilated or overpowered by Western customs. Anti-Western beliefs are often broad so that they push up against modernizing as well. This response could hinder development of the MENA region (Ottaway and Carothers 22).

    Power in MENA

    Largely through means of wealth and education, MENA is governed by the families maintaining the ranks of the elite, making changes in power mere updates from one generation to another. Only Islamist groups are permitted to organize, meeting in mosques without interference. People of MENA would not tolerate interference from with Islamic aspects of life. Unlike a democracy, authoritarian regimes may repress radical groups, making terrorism a less impressive threat.

    A major factors contributing to the persistence of authoritarianism in MENA is a lack of institutions for participation in the political process. Civil society is known to development of popular participation and involvement, leading to discussion, awareness, and involvement in organizations separate from the government. The resulting situation is conducive to the development of political parties in opposition to the current regime. If these groups are not permitted by the regime to nominate and elect candidates for offices or to act in opposition to the regime, then these groups are likely call for political reform and expanded civil rights and liberties. Without swift and consistent repression these groups would likely cause enough disruption to prompt change resulting in political liberalization (Albrecht and Schlumerger 371-92).

    As the factors continue to layer, the significant presence of non-governmental organizations may have led to a decreased development of civil society because people who are potential activists in MENA are participating in NGOs rather than developing their own organizations. In order for NGOs to enter and operate in MENA countries, they have to agree to certain restrictions and monitoring parameters with the government. This policy restricts the ability of the NGOs to organize in ways that are potentially threatening to the survival of the current regime. Additionally, NGOs are not integrated enough into the country to cause or influence significant change in the governmental systems or structures (Posusney 127-38).

    In MENA, nearly all the prerequisites usually necessary to be present, at least in part, are absent. Those prerequisites include developed civil society, market economy, an educated population, and at least some presence of democracy. The absence of one or two of these conditions has not hindered the onset of the third wave of democratization in MENA but the concurrent absence of these conditions. Conditions supporting authoritarian regimes are patrimonial structured security apparatuses, international support for the regime, reliable rent or aid payments, history of repression, a culture that conflicts with Western styled democracy, being in a region with few current democracies, and little history with democracy if any at all. Throughout MENA there are countries that possess most of the authoritarian conditions and few, if any, of the democratic conditions. Without a drastic change to alter these conditions, the persistence of authoritarianism is unlikely to be challenged. The people of MENA countries could apply pressure, enough to induce change but because they have not seen success in a similar country they cannot imagine such a change occurring in their own country. With the increasingly globalized world and social networking sites as they are this may be changing; as recent protests seem to indicate, the people are realizing their dissatisfaction and beginning to push for change (Bellin 139-43).

    Addressing another factor in support of authoritarianism is the willingness of the regimes to suppress organizations that could lead to bottom-up pressure for democracy. Since the leaders in MENA regimes are associated with military, they have influence over the security apparatuses that have a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo and the current regime because they often receive benefits from serving at the behest of the leader. Since these benefits are usually financial for the less oil rich states, attention drawn by large scale protest would likely result in a loss of international support and aid. This loss reduces funds for security apparatuses and is, in effect, repression. Increased institutionalization within security apparatuses also increases the probability that the security establishment will allow reform, a theoretical decreased chance of patrimonial structures and treatment, and increased belief among those employed in the security apparatuses that they will keep their jobs despite what happens to the current regime. In short, institutionalization of the security apparatuses in MENA countries arrange for those employed in such apparatuses do not believe that they are reliant on or indebted to the current regime for their livelihood (Bellin 143-46).

    The decision to repress or to allow protest and potential transition is a cost game in which the costs of repression are weighed against the costs of allowing the transition. For the security apparatus, if the repression costs are greater than the costs of allowing democratization, then it will be less inclined to intervene to repress. While this argument is logical and seems to represent human behavior, there is some circularity to the point; mobilization by the people is less likely if the regime is consistent in repressing which reinforces the regimes decision because fewer people mobilize less often, and swift and harsh repression deters mobilization which keeps the costs to the government for repression low (Bellin 143-46).

    The Faces of Authoritarianism

    Samuel Huntington pioneered the theories of waves of democracy. The third wave began in mid 1970’s and continues through present day. MENA has challenged the theory because there are more authoritarian regimes being formed than democratic ones, although many of these authoritarian regimes have put on a façade of political competition and democratic structures. What appears to be even more detrimental to the development of democracies in MENA is the type of authoritarian regimes that are emerging. Among the three types of authoritarian regimes, single-party, military, and personalist, the dominating form in MENA is the single party type. This type is the typically the longest lasting, least fragile of the three. In both the military and personalist types, groups within the inner circle have opportunity and motive to want to take power away from the leader. In contrast, single party arrangements are more closely connected to the people fostering more support and they are also distinct from but connected to the security apparatuses in such a way that the military is able to maintain its quasi-autonomy but the leader still has substantial influence (King 17-30).

    Despite the persistence of authoritarian regimes in MENA and the low probability of this changing in the near future, there is growing popular demand for expanded rights and some calls for democracy. These demands continue to go largely unfilled because little pressure is being applied by civil society or organizations on the governments of MENA to induce change. To appease and keep their populations from making too much noise, governments make periodic minor reforms. In order to disrupt the pattern, significant pressure must be placed on the current regime from an organized opposition party, division within the current party, or from massive, organized, and persistent pressure from the people. Reforms towards democracy have made it onto the docket in MENA before; however, such reforms are abandoned because the authoritarian leaders do not want to yield their power. Economic prosperity seems to be positively correlated with a desire among the people for more rights and liberties and thus, with more democratic government. Most people in MENA are living near or below the poverty level; people are likely more concerned with survival and less with luxury rights such as freedom of speech. Historically, nationalism has helped spread democracy, but while leaders may be willing to use democratic methods to get elected, once in power many leaders are extremely hesitant or unwilling to return power based on democratic practices like elections. In MENA, nationalism has been a trend in political strategy; however, most leaders link nationalism to religion in lieu of democracy. After the colonial powers left MENA, the people wanted distance from the Western influence of their former colonial powers politically, culturally and ideologically. This priority led them away from liberal democratic ideology of the West. Over time MENA became less opposed to Western ideas because people in those countries were wealthier, faced fewer restrictions, and were freer from control and fear of the government. The authoritarian leaders in MENA often try to link their regimes to the religion of Islam. Scholarly intellectuals that do have access to human rights and democratic organizations and NGOs tend to advocate democratization but such organizations are not always available to the general population. Furthermore, even though scholars tend to advocate democratization, they do not always support U.S. and Western activities in the region nor necessarily suggest that a Western-style democracy is feasible or desired in MENA (Carothers and Ottaway 151-69).

    The Challenge of Sustained Democracy

    Studies have been conducted in recent years in attempts to explain why MENA authoritarianism is exceptionally persistent; one such study was discussed by Christian Houle in his article “Inequality and Democracy: Why Inequality Harms Consolidation but Does Not Affect Democratization.” In the article, the argument that inequality, labeled as a deterrent to the democratization, has  no significant effect on the emergence of democratization but shows a link to a country, once on the path of democratization, backsliding into authoritarianism. In short, it concludes that socio-economic inequality hinders the ability to maintain democracy but does not prevent democratization from initiating. Houle makes the point that democratization and sustaining democracy require the involvement of elite groups and the general population, whereas authoritarianism only requires one large group with the ability to take power seizing the opportunity to do so. In a highly segmented and unequal society, like those found in MENA, elite groups are separate from the general population, enabling organization and mobility without any potential interference from the people. This situation makes the probability of coups or takeovers driven by elites much higher than emerging or sustaining democratization because there are fewer people involved and a lower risk of fragmentation. The study confirms that people are concerned foremost with meeting basic needs before demanding additional political rights. The study also confirms that “countries that rely heavily on natural resources are less likely to be democratic, notably because the elites are more vulnerable to taxation” (Houle 603). The conclusions of the study supported the democratic peace theory, by acknowledging that democracy is more likely to develop and persist if the state exists in a region where other democracies also exist and persist (Houle 589-622).

    Chief questions in light of the removal of the regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are whether democracy could work in this region and with Islam. There are two sides to the argument but those who believe that democracy and Islam are not compatible have come to be seen as radicals and pessimists. The primary reason more radical Muslims cite as why democracy cannot exist alongside Islam is that, in Islam, sovereignty comes from God, whereas democracy is based on the derivation of sovereignty from the people. Moderates, however, say that Islam does not dictate what form of government should be used—only how Muslims should live—which is no different from Christianity and Judaism. Moderates ask, if states home to majority populations of Christians or Jews live under democracy and respect the authority of their God, why should Muslims not be able to do the same? Most Muslims see no reason that democracy cannot exist in countries where Islam is the prevailing religion (Fuller 37-40).

    Types of Islam and Support for Democracy

    Graham Fuller writes for the book, Uncharted Journey, that Islam per se has not prevented the democratization of MENA, but rather other reasons have done so. He cites oil, income levels, the nature of the Arab state, Arab-Israeli tension, geography (being between the East and the West), and longtime Western support for Friendly Tyrants in the Middle East, and Islamism, as the factors that hinder democracy in MENA. Islamism, as Fuller uses the term, is the Islam based movements that are used by MENA regimes to spread radical propaganda, winning in democratic elections to prevent wide support for democratization domestically and internationally. Recently this threat has been diminished; Islamists and Islamist opposition parties increasingly advocate expanding democratic practices publicly. In their quest for representation and power, the Islamist groups that make up the vast majority of opposition to the regimes of MENA are faced with the decision to try to participate legally in a rigged political system that is unwilling to allow them any opportunity for representation or to resort to violent measures. Democracy, democratic institutions, elections, and politics all require compromise. The willingness of these groups to compromise to exist within a democratic political system is uncertain. Advocating democracy because of a genuine desire to attempt democratization is possibly motivated by democracy could bring them to power which once achieved may corrupt the purposes driving them toward democracy. Despite the organizations that have emerged in MENA society that have a desire to participate in politics to inflict changes, there is a radical undercurrent in MENA politics in response to Western activities and policies towards the region. This attitude has made organizations that are, or could be, pro-democracy more hesitant to express such beliefs and has consequently hindered the democratization process further in most MENA states. Essentially, Fuller acknowledges that Islamist groups are widespread in MENA and for the most part, these are the only organizations that pose real opposition to the regimes; however, they are not the reason democratization has not taken hold in MENA. Islam and democracy do not represent either-or decisions (Graham 41-55).

    As an example of an Islamist group that has persisted in MENA politics and has demonstrated ability act as a political party, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown ability to exercise influence and exert pressure on regimes of MENA. Groups like the brotherhood have continued to perpetrate the political scenes of many MENA countries. Such groups recognize that Islamic tenets of jihad, shura and ijma are common to both Islam and democracy. However, critics of the pro-democracy thinkers in MENA say expected equal treatment of all citizens, including women and non-Muslims in MENA countries, is unrealistic. More moderate thinkers that are still not completely won over by arguments supporting democracy in MENA, such as Abul A’la Mawdudi, push for a theo-democracy in which all true Muslims have a right to offer and contribute their opinions towards the operation and conducting of business in government and larger society but non-Muslims would not possess the same rights. Pro-democracy thinkers in MENA, although recently quieted by unpopular Western policies in the region, advocate democracy and believe it compatible with the culture in MENA. Their biggest issue is their criticism that the U.S. and West have been inconsistent and hypocritical in their policies towards MENA. The West continues to support authoritarian regimes in MENA despite knowledge of human rights violations and repression of citizens to preserve a pro-Western regime in the region and access to oil (Mousalli).

    Islam is not unlike any other religion or ideology; there are different interpretations within the same group. There are extreme interpretations to any and all of these religions; Islam is no exception. Among the more extreme interpretations of Islam is the Salafi sect. This group “seeks to return to a purer, stricter, and more fundamentalist implementation of the Quran and hadith” (Freeman 41). Within this subset there are three categories, purists, politicos and jihadis. Among the jihadis, there are three types, internal, global and irredentist. The global jihadi is a type of Salafi such as Al Qaeda. They believe in reestablishing sharia law but cannot as long as their current regime stands. In order to dismantle the current regime, they seek to fight a jihad against supporters of the current regime. For Al Qaeda, the U.S. is the “far enemy” and their home country’s regime is the “near enemy.”  This sect is a group within a category within a subset within a type that desire to kill American “infidels.” This small group has shaped many Westerners idea of what Muslims believe which has led to anti-Muslim sentiments and in some cases ostracism and persecution. Generalizations and naïveté led to questioning if Islam is compatible with democracy and if Muslims are capable of living up to the Western ideals of this government structure.


    There are some ideas that are often cited as reasons why democracy and Islam may be incompatible that have cause to be of concern. First, Islam has been laid out in the religious texts and teachings as a framework for the conduct of an individual and, also, of how a government should behave. Secular government is not generally accepted as an option by Islamic scholars; they see Islam as the guiding principles for both private and public life. With this view, politics, government, and treatment of world affairs should be just as guided by Islam as private prayer and worship. However, nowhere in Islamic teachings is a model of government specified (Kramer 2-8). Government should keep with the tenets of shari’a law, the pillars of Islam and the teachings of Islam but “the precise form of government is left to human reason” (Kramer 5). German scholar Gudrun Kramer concluded in his article “Islamist Notions of Democracy” that “the adopting of democracy, or of certain democratic elements, may be acceptable, recommended or even mandatory—provided it does not lead to the neglect or violation of Islamic norms and values” (Kramer 5).

    Islam is integrated into the culture and the political platforms.  Even in countries where the government is officially secular like in Turkey, Islam finds representation. The current methods guiding the U.S. in promoting democratization in MENA are inconsistent and hypocritical. The U.S. at times turns a blind eye to events, including violent repression and blatant human rights violations, even in some MENA countries that are U.S. allies; case in point, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Cold War. The answer to the question of MENA’s compatibility with democracy is quite simply, yes. Democracy has been altered to fit the distinct and different cultures of many countries across the world and the same could be implemented to fit situations in MENA. The result would not mirror the democracy found in the U.S. and would likely not resemble a Western style of democracy, but democracy is possible.

    Works Cited

    • Albrecht, Holger, and Oliver Schlumerger. “Waiting for Godot: Regime Change Without Democratization in the Middle East.” International Political Science Review 25.4 (2004): 371-92. JSTOR. Web. 6 Mar. 2011.
    • Bellin, Eva. “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Politics 36.2 (2004): 139-152. JSTOR. Web. 20 Feb. 2010.
    • Carothers, Thomas, and Marina Ottaway. “The Missing Constituency for Democratic Reform.” Uncharted Journey: Promoting Democracy in the Middle East. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005. 151-250. Print.
    • CIA World Factbook Online. Central Intellegence Agency. n.d. Web.
    • Dalacoura, Katerina. “U.S. Democracy Promotion in the Arab Middle East since 11 September 2001: a Critique.” International Affairs 81.5 (2005): 965-77. JSTOR. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
    • Freeman, Michael. “Democracy, Al Qaeda, and the Causes of Terrorism: A Strategic Analysis of U.S. Policy.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 31 (2008): 40-59. JSTOR. Web. 12 Feb. 2011.
    • Fuller, Graham. “Islamists and Democracy” Uncharted Journey: Promoting Democracy in the Middle East. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005. 37-40. Print.
    • Gerner, Deborah J, Understanding the Contemporary Middle East, King-Irani, Laurie, “Kinship, Class and Ethnicity”, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc. 2000. 281-283.
    • Graham. “Islamists and Democracy.” Uncharted Journey: Promoting Democracy in the Middle East. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005. 41-55. Print.
    • Halperin, Sandra. “The Post-Cold War Political Topography of the Middle East: Prospects for Democracy” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26 No. 7 (2005). 1137-1139. Print.
    • Houle, Christian. “Inequality and Democracy Why Inequality Harms Consolidation but Does Not Affect Democratization.” World Politics 61.4 (2009): 589-622. JSTOR. Web. 12 Feb. 2011.
    • King, Stephen J. The New Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 2009. 17-30. Print.
    • Kramer, Gudrun. “Islamist Notions of Democracy.” Middle East Report (1993): 2-8.JSTOR. Web. 15 Dec. 2010.
    • Marshall, Monty G., and Keith Jeggers. “Global Report 2009.” Polity IV Project. Political Instability Task Force. Web. 05 Apr. 2011. <>.
    • Mousalli, Ahmad S. The Islamic Quest for Democracy, Pluralism and Human Rights. Gainesville, Fla.: Univ. of Florida, 2003. Print.
    • Ottaway, Marina, and Thomas Carothers. “Islam and Democracy.” Foreign Policy 145 (2004): 22+. JSTOR. Web. 3 Mar. 2011.
    • Posusney, Marsha Pripstein. “Enduring Authoritarianism: Middle East Lessons for Comparative Theory.” Comparative Politics 36.2 (2004): 127-38. JSTOR. Web. 3 Mar. 2011.
    • Richards, Alan and John Waterbury. A Political Economy of the Middle East, Boulder, CO: Westview Press 2008. Pp. 181-198 and 22-28.

    Figure 1: Middle East and North Africa Countries Ranked in Terms of Freedom of Political Rights and Civil Liberties

    Table 1: Freedom in the World 2010: Table of Independent Countries

    Country Political Rights Civil Liberties Freedom Status
    Algeria 6 5 Not Free
    Armenia 6 4 Partly Free
    Azerbaijan 6 5 Not Free
    Bahrain 6 5 Not Free
    Cyprus* 1 1 Free
    Djibouti 5 5 Partly Free
    Egypt 6 5 Not Free
    Iran 6 6 Not Free
    Iraq 5 6 Not Free
    Israel* 1 2 Free
    Jordan 6 5 Not Free
    Kuwait 4 4 Partly Free
    Lebanon 5 3 Partly Free
    Libya 7 7 Not Free
    Malta* 1 1 Free
    Mauritania 6 5 Not Free
    Morocco 5 4 Partly Free
    Oman 6 5 Not Free
    Qatar 6 5 Partly Free
    Saudi Arabia 7 6 Not Free
    Somalia 7 7 Not Free
    Sudan 7 7 Not Free
    Syria 7 6 Not Free
    Tunisia 7 5 Not Free
    Turkey* 3 3 Partly Free
    United Arab Emirates 6 5 Not Free
    Yemen   5 Not Free

    1 represents the most free and 7 the least free rating. The ratings reflect an overall judgment based on survey results.

    * indicates a country’s status as an electoral democracy.

    NOTE: The ratings reflect global events from January 1, 2009, through December 31, 2009.