Debates over democracy continue to occupy not only U.S. and European policymakers but Arabs as well. Arguments rage about the merits of top-down versus bottom-up democratization. In coffeehouses and in taxis, Arabs discuss the issue. Can democracy take root in Arab countries? How can democracy's supporters move democratization forward? Is civil society a precursor for democracy, or can civil society thrive only once democracy is achieved? How do each country's internal and external dynamics affect the process? In order to gauge progress, it is necessary to measure democracy. Comparisons of such measurements taken in seventeen Arab states between 1999 and 2005 suggest not only is progress lacking in most countries, but across the Middle East, reform has backslid.
Democracy is not just about fair, free, and frequent elections; it should also embody good governance, defined in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)'s Arab Human Development Report as "a set of societal institutions that fully represent the people, interlinked by a solid network of institutional regulation and accountability (with ultimate accountability to the people), whose purpose is to achieve the welfare of all members of society." Democratic societies must include freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, and protections of basic human rights.
Lucid analysis of the state of democratization requires objective measurements of progress. It is possible to quantify democracy although political scientists and practitioners can debate the formulas by which they assign numbers to political freedoms. As important to finding the right formula is consistency of application. Single snapshots of democracy are illuminating, but comparisons over time far more so.
In 1999, I formulated a composite measure, the status of democracy index, which quantifies democratization through consideration of multiple variables: four variables address governance and representative government. These mark how heads of state and members of the legislature are selected, as well as political party development, suffrage, and the maturity of political rights and civil liberties. The annual Freedom House survey provides a fifth variable measuring media freedom. Measurements of religious liberty can be derived from U.S. Department of State reports. A seventh addresses the observance of human rights with the information from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Department of State. The United Nations Development Program's human development index provides a measurement of human development. The Heritage Foundation's index of economic freedom quantifies economic freedom.
The status of democracy index assigns each of these nine variables 2 points for a total of 18 points. Each score ranges from 0 to 2, with 0 being nonexistent and 2 being the highest measurement. For example, if the head of state or legislature is not elected, then that country receives a score of zero. Prohibition of political parties would also equate to a 0 while tight controls would merit a 1, and reasonably free functioning would lead to a 2. Media freedom, religious liberty, and respect for human rights are each easy to quantify: 0 for not free, 1 for partly free, and 2 for free. Human development is scored by level: 0 for low, 1 for medium, and 2 for high. Economic freedom, the last variable, is scored on the level of governmental interference in the economy, with 0 for strong, 1 for moderate, and 2 for low interference. It is then possible to convert the totals to a percentage for easy digestion.
In a previous article, I applied the status of democracy index to gauge the level of democracy in seventeen Arab states in 1999. I included Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen. I excluded the Palestinian Authority, which is not yet a full-fledged state, as well as peripheral members of the Arab League—the Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, and Somalia—which are, at best, honorary affiliates.
The results showed a region far from democratic. Morocco scored the highest with 11 points out of 18, or a 61 percent level. The second highest rankings went to Jordan and Lebanon, each with 10.5 points, or 58 percent. The lowest rankings went to Iraq and Saudi Arabia with 2.5 points or 14 percent. (See Table 1.)
The 2005 Survey: Progress Elusive
Arab governments may claim that they implemented significant political reforms between 1999 and 2005. In 1999, Kuwait's ruler Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah issued a decree granting women full political rights. Governments formed national human rights institutions in Jordan in 2000, and in both Qatar and Egypt three years later. In 2001, Bahraini citizens voted to transform the country from an emirate into a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and an independent judiciary. In March 2003, a U.S.-led coalition ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Jordanians voted for a new parliament that same year after King Abdullah II lifted his three-year suspension of the body. Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections since the country's 1932 establishment. International pressure led to multiparty, albeit restricted, elections in Egypt. There were other elections in Iraq and Lebanon, the latter freed in May 2005 from a decades-long Syrian occupation.
While promising, events fell short of many democracy advocates' expectations. In Kuwait, for example, the national assembly blocked women from voting. National human rights organizations remain weak and too often act as tools with which governments suppress rather than promote human rights. Many Lebanese suspect the Syrian government to be behind a wave of assassinations of politicians and journalists.
How are the last six years reflected in the status of democracy index? (See Table 2.) Jordan and Lebanon remained consistent with 10.5 points each. The second highest ranking went to Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, each with 9 points. Morocco lost three points due to declining press and economic freedoms and scored only 8 in 2005. Libya, Oman, and Sudan occupied the second lowest positions with 5 points each. Saudi Arabia remained the least democratic with only 4 points. In total, six countries remained at their previous levels. Seven countries—Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen—marginally improved their score. Four countries—Kuwait, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia—became less democratic.
The 2005 results suggest that the Middle East remains authoritarian, saturated with patriarchal values, religious dogma, ideological and political extremism, and narrow economic interests. These factors continue to obstruct liberalization, public legal opposition, inclusiveness, and participation—essential directions for democracy.
Still, each Arab state is unique. In many of the smaller Persian Gulf states, lack of movement on the status of democracy index does not suggest discord. While the United Arab Emirates' score remains unchanged, most Emirati citizens do not view democratization as urgent. Frauke Heard-Bey, a German historian and senior research fellow at the Center for Documentation and Research in Abu Dhabi, suggests that most citizens of the United Arab Emirates welcome changes in government and society through "consultation rather than confrontation," and would prefer to have gradual reform implemented through rulers' decrees.
Qatar, with its score increasing from 28 to 33 percent, is no democracy. Although the emir introduced several democratic initiatives including a new constitution, a municipal council, and free broadcast of the Al-Jazeera satellite station, he remains an autocrat. According to Hugh Miles, a freelance writer and journalist with long experience in the Persian Gulf, the emir is "unelected, unaccountable, and all-powerful." Miles further explains the breakdown of power: "The municipal council may decide traffic laws, but it does not discuss the military budget or the emir's personal expenditure."
In Bahrain, although Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is committed to parliamentary democracy and has allowed women and associations to participate in politics, he remains head of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Governance is even more absolute in Oman. Sultan Qaboos al Bu Said rules by royal decree. While the Council of Oman—consisting of an elected consultation council and an appointed state council—may be considered an important move toward democratization, the royal office controls Oman's internal and external affairs and decides all intelligence and security matters. While many Omanis and outside observers may consider Qaboos forward-thinking and progressive, the absence of democratic infrastructure combined with the lack of a clear successor make the lack of reform dangerous.
The status of democracy index suggests that North Africa remains particularly problematic. Egypt, home to one of every three Arabs, improved only marginally. The Hosni Mubarak regime has adopted the rhetoric of democracy but not the spirit. Rather, it engages in "controlled liberalization" to allow opposition groups to blow off steam without creating a situation that could threaten regime power. Still, as Washington maintained pressure on Mubarak, he allowed the Muslim Brotherhood candidates campaigning as independents to contest the November-December 2005 parliamentary elections. The group won 88 seats out of 454, compared to the 15 seats it had previously occupied. The electoral reform does not guarantee democratic progress. While Mubarak's National Democratic Party still dominates politics, the Muslim Brotherhood may continue to campaign for general political reform in order to augment its showing. If given the chance to exert power, it will likely reduce women's rights and those of the Christian Coptic minority.
Libya remains near the basement. While Washington has pursued diplomatic rapprochement with Tripoli, thawing relations may have hindered rather than advanced Libyan reform. According to Libyan-American activist Mohamed Eljahmi, Qadhafi's "decision to abandon his weapons of mass destruction program was … a calculated attempt to launder his image in order to earn him an exemption from the U.S. effort to democratize the Middle East." Strong authoritarianism also remains characteristic of Sudan and Syria where strongmen rule.
Neither have the Maghreb states of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia made progress. Algeria maintained its score while Morocco and Tunisia fell behind. Both Morocco and Tunisia have entrenched autocracies that hamper socioeconomic development and strangle liberal opposition, leaving Islamism as the chief outlet for oppositionists. The European Union's fear of instability and migration has given the region a pass on reform. While European officials embrace the Barcelona process—a framework of political, economic, and social relations between the EU and the southern Mediterranean—as a basis for their democratization efforts, a decade after its inauguration, they have little to show for their efforts.
Democratization in Jordan has likewise been stagnant. Jordanian rulers have long favored stability given the kingdom's position between Iraq and Israel, as well as its experiences with Palestinian radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, King Abdullah II's heralded National Agenda for Reform has won plaudits in Washington but made little substantive difference. The king, like his father before him, has used the election law as a safety valve in order to ensure stability.
Genuine reform is not on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's agenda. The Syrian regime is unpopular among broad swaths of society; Assad is loath to begin any process that would weaken his family's political and economic position. He may believe that outside pressure will dissipate with the end of the Bush administration. Many other Arab rulers may privately share Assad's calculations.
Arabs are stuck in autocracy and have far to go before any Arab country achieves democracy. The lack of progress over the past six years—especially at a time when democratization has become a primary goal of Western policy—suggests Arab rulers have shifted their rhetoric but not their policies. Many may believe they can outlast Washington's democracy focus.
Democratization will take more than political promises. At its root, the failure of Arab societies to democratize rests in political exclusion and cultural attitudes and values. The tendency of Washington and Brussels to engage Arab rulers is not enough. Rather than lobby for reform among rulers who have no real interest in the topic, Western officials should work to build a template for democratization in the Arab world. Specific actions could advance good governance and democracy.
First, Western governments and nongovernmental organizations should focus on engaging school-age populations in civic education. Strong state emphasis on obedience and rote memorization should shift to a greater emphasis on critical thinking.
Second, Arab governments should be made accountable for the lives of all their citizens. When the Tunisian government dismisses queries about the fate of dissident Neila Charchour Hachicha with the quip that she is a "person of no consequence," Western governments should reinforce their defense of rule-of-law and the idea that governments must be accountable to all citizens. Democracies do not deem their citizens "people of no consequence."
Third, promoting transparency is also a prerequisite for democracy. Bureaucrats should be held accountable for their actions. Promotions should be made on merit, not on patronage.
Fourth, building and consolidating a stable middle class should result in greater democratic openness and political accountability with a likely increase in women's empowerment and possible reductions in military expenditures. Stephen Glain, former Wall Street Journal Middle East bureau chief in Amman, Jordan, argues that Arab states are at their most stable when they possess a robust middle class.
The 9-11 tragedy showed that authoritarianism does not guarantee Western, let alone Arab, economic and security interests. Authoritarianism may actually be a cause for anti-Western attitudes permeating most Arab countries. At the same time, as the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Authority polls demonstrated, elections alone bring neither stability nor democracy.
Democratization is complex. Policymakers should take a more nuanced approach. The U.S. government might, for example, evaluate the current state of democracy in each Arab country using measurements such as the status of democracy index. They might then tie aid and relations to the ability of Arab governments to achieve country-specific goals by certain times. At present, Saudi Arabia receives a status of democracy score of just 4. Perhaps Washington might tie its assistance to Riyadh on the Saudi kingdom's ability to score an 8 within five years. Likewise, the Pentagon might demand that its assistance to Tunisia be tied to that regime's ability to score an 11 rather than a 9. Washington should base its relations with Arab states on concrete and transparent democratic improvements.
Arab Human Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations (New York: UNDP, 2002), p. 106; see also, "How the Arabs Compare: Arab Human Development Report 2002," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 59-67.