18 February, 2007
Arab World Despotism
So these days I am taking this course on Political Islam, with the course focussing on Islamist movements in the Middle East and North Africa, an arc stretching from Morocco to Iran*. Thus far it seems quite interesting. I am doing it more because I am interested in the politics of the Arab World rather than in Islamism as such.
One thing that came up in the last class was the subject of how undemocratic the regimes in the region are. If you look at the area covered, almost all of the countries are places where ultimate political power resides with unaccountable elites. This is in contrast with the world generally, where democratic politics of some sort or another is considerably more common. In the world generally there is an association between rising national income levels and democratic regimes, but the Middle East and North Africa is far less democratic than its income levels would predict, with the richest countries in the region being as comedically undemocratic as the poorest.
There are, of course, a couple of regimes with democratic elements. The Palestinian Authority seems to run elections that meet the highest international standards and see turnover of office holding, but it is not a state and its elected leaders do not actually rule anything of substance. Lebanon has elections all the time, but its consociational setup means that the same clique of family bosses are always in power. Turkey in many ways looks like it has democratic politics, though there is the unfortunate question of Kurdish oppression and the fact that the army still sees itself as having the right to sack the government, even if it has not chose to do so for a while. Israel has a lot of the features one expects for a democratic regime - parties, elections, free press, robust political argument, etc. - but it has its own democratic problems: firstly, the country rules over a huge subject population to whom it gives no political rights, and secondly, within its own citizenry those not from the dominant ethnic-religious group are subject to degrees of discrimination and marginalisation.
It is interesting to consider why the Middle East and North Africa seem so prone to authoritarian rule. One has to be careful of lazy explanations, particularly when you consider the differences between the countries (oil rich Qatar with its tiny population, oil poor Egypt with its teeming masses) and the different regimes that rule the countries. One possible cause can be discounted - there does not seem to be in practice a general Muslim problem with democracy. If you exclude the Middle East and North Africa the countries of the Islamic world are apparently more democratic than their income levels would suggest.
So, what has kept the authoritarian regimes in power, in a world where since 1989 there has been considerable pressure to move to democracy? Our lecturer suggests that the regimes have maintained themselves by playing their opponents off against each other. Some oppositional figures are simply bought off with plush government jobs or hard cash, but more subtly the regimes can throw minor concessions to their more old-school liberal-secular-nationalist opponents as a way of turning them into allies against the Islamists. Meanwhile, with the Islamists the main opposition forces, the regimes can always face down Western pressure to democratise by scaring the West with the prospect of democratic elections leading to mad bearded clerics occupying the Presidential palace and organising the country for Jihad against Israel, Europe, the USA, and anyone they take a dislike to.
I find this theory interesting, as it suggests that it is Western disdain for the region's main oppositional force that keeps the authoritarians in power. Certainly, when the generals in Algeria annulled their country's last free election and banned the party that won it, the world community somehow managed to see the election winners, and not the generals, as the enemies of democracy.
I am curious as to how this kind of thing will progress in the future. Maybe the mainstream Islamists will try to create a new friendly image for themselves and to cultivate alliances with the secular opposition while trying to reassure the West that they are not maniacs. Or maybe they will continue to grow their popularity in society at large to such an extent that the authoritarian regimes simply cannot sustain themselves any longer and collapse in a manner reminiscent of the Shah's. Or maybe the current situation is indefinitely sustainable. Time will tell.
*as you and I know, Arab countries do not make up all of those in the Middle East and North Africa. Iran is not an Arab country (though it has a small Arab minority). Neither is Turkey. Israel and the territory it rules has a large Arab population but a (declining) non-Arab majority.