In their bid to understand why democracy seems unable to take hold in Arab countries, the editors of this collection of essays, Elbadawi of the Center for Global Development and Makdisi of the American University of Beirut, dismiss the impact of educational opportunities, income, and female integration into the economy as yardsticks for the success (or lack thereof) of a democratic transition. Instead, they advance the notion that democracy is impeded by rents from hydrocarbons, especially "when they are deployed to create jobs." As a hypothesis, such a viewpoint may be worth arguing, but it is surprising that of the six country case studies included in the volume, only one focuses on an oil-producing state: Kuwait.

Although the editors ostensibly attempt to establish a conceptual framework for an analysis of the contributors' case studies, they are unable to present a cogent case for their theory. They arrive at conclusions that are both at odds with the hydrocarbon thesis and self-evident: "conflicts are impediments to democratization in their own right regardless of whether natural resources exist." In a chapter by Abdelwahab El-Effendi of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, the author celebrates the "miracle of the Arab Spring" that he believes proved "Arab civil society was alive and well." Considering the movement's failure to effect lasting, democratic change in any but one of the affected states (i.e., Tunisia), this hardly seems an example worth applauding as a "democratic transition."

In discussing Egypt's protracted—and still unfulfilled—transition to democracy, Noha El Mikawy, Mohamed Mohieddin and Sarah El Ashmaouy avoid criticizing the regime of Abdel Fattah Sisi and opt instead to list a line of imagined revolutionary transitions in 1919, 1952, 2011, and 2013, only one of which produced even a fleeting moment of semi-democracy. The authors blame Egypt's democratic reversal on the neighborhood effect, mainly the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, ignoring the chaos engendered by the then-ruling Muslim Brotherhood's undemocratic actions and the self-interest of Egypt's military caste.

Other case studies present similarly dubious conclusions. Writing on the democratic impasse in Kuwait, Elbadawi and Atif Kubrusi blame the Arab region's democratic deficit on the failure to find "a just and comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict," an old chestnut one would hope long ago had been buried and abandoned.

Makdisi and Youssef El Khalil ponder the likelihood of Lebanon's consociational democracy developing into a full democracy. The authors seem to confuse accommodation and consociationalism. Lebanon does not satisfy the prerequisites for consociational democracy[1] because its segmented population is not politically mobilized. It is naïve to discuss Lebanon's transition into a full-fledged democracy as long as sectarian identity is both legitimate and institutionalized. The authors quickly dismiss the untoward consequence of Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian conflict to conclude that the emergence of fundamentalist groups in Syria has created a Lebanese national consensus to deal with the emerging threat.

The book avoids serious criticism of the Arab regimes with contributors equivocating between scientific objectivity and lackeyism, bombarding readers with every economic term they can think of and baffling them with long statistical tables instead of providing convincing arguments. This lack of focus muddies the issue of democratic transition. The editors summarize the book by predicting the triumph of Arab democracy because it "is the logic of history." If it is the logic of history, then this book is pointless. If it is not, then this book is also pointless.


[1] A form of democracy seeking to regulate the sharing of power in a state that comprises diverse societies (distinct ethnic, religious, political, national or linguistic groups), by allocating these groups collective rights (Reut Institute, Tel Aviv). The idea of Lebanese consociationalism was introduced in a 1969 essay by Arend Lijphart, at a time when the state was recognized as such. But Lijphart predicted the demise of Lebanon's consociationalism, as indeed happened.