At first glance, it looks as though the Middle East is holding more elections than usual -Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and Egypt. Is this unusual?
The Middle East and North Africa are not known for competitive elections and have been criticized historically for failing basic democratic principles. There has been debate for some time about why the Middle East has resisted
democracy and explanations run the gamut from too much oil, too much religion, too much military, too much conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis (of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to be the
blame for something, even deep historical patterns in Muslim culture), and too much centralized power.
In a recent report by Harvard Assistant Professor Eric Chaney "Democratic Change in the Muslim World" noticed something striking. He noticed a concentration of non-democracies in areas of the world invaded by Muslims. But it was religion and the control structures put in place that prevented democracy from developing. And it is control structures that pacify and control a population that were most important. Some Muslim countries like Albania, Chad, and Sierra Leone do not share the democratic deficit because they were not subject to Muslim state political control. Some non-Arab countries conquered by Arabs still have the democracy deficit. So it is not Arab culture or Islam per se that is the reason for
democracy deficit, but the political control structures put in place.
The best explanation according to the report is the "institutional persistence" that has held strong to a consistent pattern of autocracy. Dating back generations, Islamic countries have put into place control structures that included close relationships with the military and religious strictures that prevented the evolution of a strong civil society or any centers of power that might compete with the state.
Interestingly, democracy is not likely to evolve in cultures that are divided between the military and religious organizations (Egypt), but will be more successful in cultures with a greater civic balance of influence (Tunisia). Egypt started out on the world stage as a model of change and demand for greater freedom and democratic processes, but much of the report does not bode well for Egypt's future as power simply shifts in Egypt from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood. The military-religious alliance that undermined democracy for centuries is still very much present in places like Yemen and Egypt.
Still, the Arab world is more poised for democratization than ever before. Changes in the last 60 years have established fertile conditions promising to unhinge rigid structures. In the absence of competition for power, any
group will likely establish autocratic rule. Unless Islamists in countries like Egypt become more receptive to civil society power groups such as labor unions and commercial interests, then it is highly likely that autocracy
will continue. The ramblings of democratic change in the Arab world are encouraging, but it's too soon to be hopeful.