Is the Arab World Ready for Democracy?

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There is often a naïve reaction in America to political uprisings abroad. The United States is a free place and has a long, albeit imperfect, history of granting asylum to political dissidents. This leads some observers, like George W. Bush’s former speechwriter Michael Gerson, to assume that freedom-seeking political dissidents abroad are looking to Washington as they face down tanks and truncheons in their streets. These dewy-eyed observers further assume that with sufficient encouragement from Washington, those dissidents are capable of creating peaceful democracies in their countries, if only their tyrannical dictators can be removed.

If there was a time when an American president’s pronouncements could control the complex political upwellings of distant countries, that day has long since passed. More important, even if the brave demonstrators in Tunisia or Egypt or elsewhere do succeed in permanently overthrowing their dictators, their prospects for lasting freedom have nothing to do with rhetorical support from Washington, but depend rather on whether those countries have the broader political and economic infrastructure necessary to sustain democracy. If our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything it is that the removal of tyranny alone is insufficient to create stable democracy.

Sure there are things Washington can do to prepare for whatever happens in Egypt and across the Arab world, and to discourage violence, and the Obama administration should do them. But when it comes to long-term political change in the region, the real question rising from the so-called Arab street is not what America can do to magically ensure it comes out well for us. It’s is the Arab world ready for democracy?

There are a lot of the theories about why Arab countries have lagged other parts of the world in economic and political development. Some blame the legacy of colonialism, others the so-called “resource curse”, others blame Islam itself. In an interesting new book called The Long Divergence, Timur Kuran of Duke argues that Islam’s economic restrictions, rather than its cultural conservatism or isolationism, stunted development in countries where it was the dominant religion. Marriage and inheritance laws, he argues, blocked the pooling of capital that made possible the Renaissance, exploration and the industrial revolution in Europe, developments that ultimately helped pave the way for stable democracy throughout the West.

Much has changed since the end of colonialism in the Arab world. In some countries, the resource curse has been lifted: Bahrain, for example, has increased experimentation with democracy as its oil wealth declined. Whatever you think of Al Jazeera, it represents a breaking of government control over the exchange of information, at least in countries other than Qatar, where it is based. And some have argued that civil society has made steady progress in some countries, including Egypt and Tunisia. But it is not easy to be optimistic. Said Freedom House in December 2001, “The gap in freedom has only widened over the last twenty years. While every other region of the world has registered significant gains for democracy and freedom, the countries of the Islamic world have experienced a significant increase in repression.”

Kuran concludes his book on a pessimistic note. “If the region’s autocratic regimes were magically to fall, the development of strong private sectors and civil societies could take decades,” he writes. “With few exceptions, their civil societies are too poorly organized, and too beaten down, to provide the political checks and balances essential to sustained democratic rule.” Kuran probably didn’t expect his conclusions to be tested so soon and we can all hope that he’s wrong. But from Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America and Southeast Asia, recent history makes it clear that democracy’s future in the Arab world depends on Arabs, not Americans.