The Arab world is compatible with democracy

I would like to thank Laura Hawkes for her inputs to this article. I would also like to thank Lorenzo Raffio for his constructive feedback during its development.


1. Introduction

Today, only 36% of Arab youths feel that the MENA region has improved in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.[1] Given the current turbulence, the idea that “democracy is incompatible with the Arab world” has become a popular – and rather problematic – argument. It is a problematic argument because:

  • It is an argument that can dehumanise Arabs and risks reducing them to case-studies for us to analyse.
  • It can imply that other parts of the world are inherently more civilised than the Arab world.
  • It could imply that the Western world introduced democracy to the Arab world, which is not necessarily true.
  • It could be used by problematic Arab leaders to justify upholding tyranny: “you need me, you can’t deal with democracy”.
  • It paints everybody in the Arab world with a broad brush, in spite of local diversity.
  • It is a nihilist view, giving young Arabs the signal that they are inherently doomed to life under undemocratic government.


Therefore, “democracy is incompatible with the Arab world” is not only a problematic statement, but it is also an untimely statement. Below, I argue that there is insufficient evidence to argue that “democracy is incompatible with the Middle East”. The more relevant, pertinent and credible question seems to be whether or not the Arab world really needs a constructed Western version of democracy in order to effectively operate.


2. Democracy was probably a Middle Eastern idea

Despite previous convictions linking democracy with Ancient Greek civilisation, recent research traces democracy to the Middle East. Many historians point to Mesopotamia (Ancient Iraq), also known as the “Cradle of Civilisation”, as the founding nation of democracy, where day-to-day political decisions rested in the hands of young men.

The democratic model in Mesopotamia was therefore patriarchal, and cannot be considered fully democratic, but it was at least a start. During the period of classical antiquity, civilisations in the Middle East and the rest of the Mediterranean began sharing ideas between one-another as Empires emerged and coalitions were formed.

The Greeks directly or indirectly adopted the Mesopotamian decision-making model, coining the term demos kratosdemos meaning ‘the people’ and kratos meaning ‘power’. The word demos in Greek is also in masculine form and, indeed, the democratic councils of Ancient Greece were populated by men, hence our theory that there was a possible transmition of democratic order from the Middle East to Ancient Greece. Despite this, many universities still refer to the Ancient Greeks as fore-founders of modern democracy.

The reasons for this require a separate article, though it is perhaps because the Roman Empire occupied Ancient Greece, making Greek texts more readily available to the rest of the world in different languages. Another possible explanation is that there are more Greek-trained translators than Sumerian-trained translators as Greek is a language that is more widely used today.


3. The rest of the world also struggled with democracy

Despite their historical roots, modern Arab nations are very young indeed – they are not even two centuries old. This is because they are born out of colonial projects that continued to redefine borders and move populations across the region. Therefore, modern Arab nations have not had the same time to settle as European nations, which have remained historically similar since at least the seventeenth century (see Treaty of Westphalia). Had modern Middle Eastern nations been given the same time to grow and mature, we would probably see very different approaches to regime-change today in countries that are, for example, more literate, open-minded and tolerant of changing political systems. This is not an excuse, but it is context.

Two early examples of regime-change in Europe were the English Civil War and the French Revolution. Disagreements between Royalists and Parliamentarians led to a civil war in England in the seventeenth century, resulting in the execution of King Charles I; his son Charles II was exiled and a protectorate was established by Oliver Cromwell. Almost a century later, the social-democratic upheaval that occurred in France led to the abolition of the French monarchy, a period that was also chaotic and even anarchic, inspiring a powerful speech by British parliamentarian and conservative Edmund Burke that is today coined The Evils of Revolution. Subsequently, Arab nations are not unique in their prolonged and reluctant responses as young nations dealing with democratic change. In this light, it may be worth also reading about failed democratic regime-change in Latin America and Former Yugoslavia.

It could be that historic European regimes were different in time and context, and were more amenable to eventual democratisation. Therefore, one could argue that we cannot expect Arab countries to follow a similar pattern to the patterns witnessed in France and England during their revolutions. However, this comparison still highlights that Europe struggled with democracy nonetheless. Subsequently, the suggestion that Arab society is unique in its struggle with democracy is historical innacurate.

These considerations therefore beg the question: was the rest of the world ever ready for democracy? It seems that Stephen Grand, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, also suggests that European transitions were timely, tumultuous periods that render pessimism over the MENA region unwarranted.[2] The French Revolution is of crucial importance, as a key parallel between the French Revolution and the Arab Spring is the rapid removal of heads of state by their people, a significant amount of whom wanted democracy.


4. “But what about Israel? A young, democratic nation.” – A response

There are three ways to approach the position that Israel is an example of a very young state which is also democratic. This common argument attempts to undermine the view that modern MENA countries are still finding their feet with democracy as they are young nations that are still institutionalising. The following counterarguments to this popular response are all possible:

  1. “Israel is a Middle Eastern nation, so the Israeli case is actually evidence that democracy is compatible with the Middle East.”
  2. “If we consider Israel to be instead a Western nation, the Israeli case can be seen as an anomalous case; an exception to a general trend between time and democratic stability.”
  3. “How democratic is Israel really?”

Let’s treat Israel as a Western nation for argument’s sake. How democratic is Israel really? Arabs who live in Israel who have not been granted Israeli citizenship – as well as Palestinians living in the occupied territories – do not have the right to vote for who determines their day-to-day lives under a divisive or occupying regime. That is, despite the fact that many Arab Israeli families had been in the area before Israel was established (so the people who have not been granted the right to vote are not exactly immigrants). Today, about one-fifth of Israelis are Arabs, yet less than 15% of Israel’s Knesset is comprised of Arab members. In ways similar to many of its Arab neighbours, it is questionable whether a state with a religious national flag – in Israel’s case, a flag that sports the Star of David – can actually be considered a truly secular, democratic state. It is also questionable whether non-Jewish, Arab citizen has the same prospect of becoming a democratically elected leader of what Netanyahu calls the world’s “only Jewish State”.


Therefore, the Israeli case rather confirms the position that there is a general trend between the age of a nation-state and the maturity of its democracy. Israel, like many of its neighbouring Arab countries, is not democratic in a truly representative sense.


5. More recent signs of a “MENA democracy”

5. a) Tunisia

Today, in fact, Arabs have democratic exceptions of their own that defy huge odds. After two major latent pushes for democratisation in the form of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Arab Spring, a 2016 poll claimed that ‘today most young Arabs prioritise stability over democracy’.[3] As a backlash to democratisation forced by NATO, there has been the added dimension of the revival of Islamic conservatism across the Arabian Peninsula. The rise of insurgent groups, such as the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Libya, also highlights an increase in polarisation across existing social divides. Despite all of the above, Tunisia still defies the odds as a young, postcolonial nation that has transitioned fairly successfully into democracy without falling into crisis.

Stephen Grand himself concedes that, if complex and rival political systems can be overcome, ‘democracy will eventually take root’.[4] Tunisian locals had created an abundance of grassroots movements, including political parties and civil society groups, resulting in heightened social and political awareness (albeit with the aid of social  media). In other words, in a much more complex region, Tunisian regime-change does not appear to be as chaotic as some cases of regime-change in early Europe. Can we really claim that Tunisia is not democratic purely because it does not subscribe to complete Westernisation?

5. b) Palestine

Technically, Palestine is also a democracy, however flawed the democratically-elected leadership in the Gaza may be. I suppose the Palestinian case resembles the Israeli case to a certain extent, whereby democratically-elected Netanyahu is yet more problematic than Hamas, indiscriminately targeting many more civilians in the regional conflict.

5. c) Kuwait

Kuwait equally boasts a directly-elected National Assembly, granting women the right to vote in May 2005. As such, it could be argued that the MENA region already had – prior to the Arab Spring – exercises of democracy, ones that have been organically tailored to suit traditional values rather than being imported directly from other countries.


6. Summary

Subsequently, questions of perception and bias are of monumental importance when assessing whether or not the Arab world is inherently incompatible with democracy. Arab countries are not perfect, but how perfectly democratic is Britain, for example, with its unelected chamber of parliament (the hereditary lawmakers in the House of Lords)? This is not “whataboutery”: rather, I am trying to highlight that the Arab world is not unique in its struggle with democracy.

Britain has had much longer to mature than today’s modern Arab nations and yet also holds, for example, an unelected monarch who could possibly, in the distant future, abuse their constitutional powers. We don’t have to just look into the past to undermine the claim that the Arab world is inherently incompatible with democracy – there is plenty of current evidence to undermine this argument too: in particular, the Tunisian case, a largely successful democratic republic. Other regions that struggle with democracy are Central Africa, Latin America and South East Asia.


7. References

  1. ‘Inside the Hearts and Minds of Arab Youth’, 8th Annual Asda’a Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, (April 2016).
  2. Grand, S., Understand Tahrir Square: What Transitions Elsewhere Can Teach Us about the Prospects for Arab Democracy, (10 April 2014).
  3. ‘Inside the Hearts and Minds of Arab Youth’, 8th Annual Asda’a Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, (April 2016).
  4. Grand, S., Understand Tahrir Square: What Transitions Elsewhere Can Teach Us about the Prospects for Arab Democracy, (10 April 2014).

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