When people look for reasons why countries haven’t made the transition from authoritarian government to democracy, they often mention economic development or culture, or both. And culture usually means religion more specifically. And religion usually means Islam. Now it’s true that if you look at the largest Muslim region, the Arab world (roughly North Africa plus the Arab Peninsula), you won’t find a single democracy. You can check the most common democracy indexes, Freedom House and Polity IV. That’s an anomaly: no other large region in the world is similarly devoid of democratic governance.
The question is of course: why? In our post-9/11 world the obvious answer is Islam, which is believed to be a religion that is particularly incompatible with democratic principles such as separation of state and church, pluralism, rule of law, human rights etc. Some even say that there will never be democracies in the Arab world as long as Islam remains an important force.
However, sometimes the obvious answer is also the wrong one. Some Muslim countries outside the Arab world have reasonably well developed democratic systems of government (Albania, Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal, Turkey etc.) and are doing much better than some non-Muslim dictatorships out there.
But then, if it’s not religion, what is the reason for the absence of democracy in the Arab world? In an interesting new paper, Larry Diamond has a look at some possible reasons. He focuses on the so-called resource-curse and the correlated lack of accountability (accountability only emerges in countries that have to tax their people), but I think he’s wrong there. Lack of economic development could be a cause, but he rightly dismisses it. If you compare economic development in Arab and non-Arab countries, you see that per capita GDP of Kuwait is on the same level as Norway, Bahrain compares to France, and Saudi Arabia is on a par with South Korea. Conversely, you’ll be able to find non-Arab democracies that are much less developed than the average Arab country.
A more promising explanation of enduring Arab authoritarianism is FOTA: fear of the alternative. moderate opposition groups in Arab countries tend to accept their authoritarian governments. Their dislike of “modern pharaohs” is topped by their dislike of radical Islamist groups that could profit from free elections. Rather than the principle “one person, one vote, one time” followed by theocracy, they settle for the relatively mild yoke of secular Arab dictatorship. Something similar happened before in Latin America, when the feared alternative was communist rule.
Another explanation for the lack of Arab democracy is the large proportion of GDP spent on the security apparatus, and the relative efficiency of Arab security forces. This is probably linked to the support these countries receive from the West, which is another reason for their longevity. And finally, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a very convenient diversion: it allows public frustration to discharge outwards, without internal consequences.
As you can see, none of these causes condemn Arab countries to dictatorship. Compared to religion, these are things that can be changed quite easily, if the will is there. The FOTA is self-fulfilling: it’s likely that radical Islamist movements are encouraged by authoritarian rule, as much as they are restrained by it. So better give it up. And the West could use its leverage, resulting from decades of support, to push for reforms.