Is democracy possible in the Arab world? With the end of the Cold War, there was some hope the roughly 250 million inhabitants in the seventeen countries in the Middle East and North Africa where Arabic is spoken would move with a world-wide trend. After

Is democracy possible in the Arab world? With the end of the Cold War, there was some hope the roughly 250 million inhabitants in the seventeen countries in the Middle East and North Africa where Arabic is spoken would move with a world-wide trend. After all, the Soviet Union had supported several Arab regimes and it was gone. With the end of Soviet communism, why not suppose Arab authoritarianism was doomed? But that bright hope quickly turned to ashes. As Fouad Ajami put it, "It was the season of democracy, but the Arab world's tyrants were still in power. The old Soviet empire was coming apart, and its Arab satrapies were left holding the bag."1

This disappointment brought back, with some urgency, the very question of the compatibility of Arab culture with democratic government. Some observers view the very notion of "Arab democracy" as an oxymoron. The French political philosopher Jean-François Revel, the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, and many others have questioned whether Islam, particularly in the lands touched by Arab civilization, is compatible with democracy.2 These pessimists offer various explanations. Some hold that the all-encompassing nature of Islam in regulating the social and spiritual life of the believers precludes the development of a Reformation that would support such concepts as individual liberty and the separation of the religious and public spheres, as they developed in the West.3 To others, the nature of economic-social development across the Middle East and North Africa retard the flourishing of the civil societies essential to democracy.4 For still others, the social structure across the Arabic-speaking countries is too "tribal" or "clannish" to permit the institution of democratic processes of governance.5

Do these ideas have validity? Is "Arab democracy" in fact doomed to failure?

Seventeen Countries

The best way to find out is by testing this idea against empirical data in those seventeen states.6 The inhabitants of these countries share a number of important qualities. They speak Arabic. Their historical references include the Muslim Arab conquests, the Ottoman empire, and European colonialism. Islam, the faith of 92 percent of the people in these countries, is arguably their most important common cultural characteristic. (Table 3) It is the state religion in all Arabic-speaking countries except Lebanon, designated as such in their constitutions or through the stipulation that the head of state must be Muslim. All incorporate, wholly or partially, Islamic law into their legal systems. Some Arab leaders not only make certain that Islam is implemented on the national level but also use it in varying degrees to justify their legitimacy and their policies. This applies especially to traditional monarchial regimes, such as Saudi Arabia.

Religious freedom in the Arab world is usually restricted, for reasons ranging from state policy to vigilantism by extremists. Thus, at one end, the Saudi authority prohibits the practice of religions other than Islam, to the point that conversions out by Muslims is punishable by death.7 In Algeria, by contrast, the constitution declares Islam the state religion while prohibiting religious discrimination, which was of little use when Islamist terrorists in Algeria deliberately targeted and killed Christians during the recent civil strife in that country. The Libyan government bans Islamic groups at variance with the state-approved teaching of Islam. In Bahrain, the government controls and monitors both Sunnis and Shi'is. In Egypt, Copts face discrimination, while the law limits their rights as citizens; apostasy is not prosecuted by the authorities but has led to murder of real or designated apostates by extremists. In Iraq, the Shi'a and their religious leaders are repressed, while Assyrian Christians in th
at country are in a permanently precarious situation. The Kuwaiti government forbids the founding of non-Islamic publishing companies or training institutions for clergy. In Oman, the mosques and religious services are monitored to ensure that the preachers stay clear of politics and within the sanctioned orthodoxy of Islam.

Human rights has seen some improvements in recent years, such as the release of political prisoners or prisoners of conscience in Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia, and Syria, but the region's record on this score remains dismal. Human Rights Watch states that in the Middle East and North Africa in 1997, "the overwhelming majority of people lived in countries where basic rights were routinely violated with impunity and where open criticism of the authorities knew sharp limits."8 Also, as reported by Amnesty International, the death penalty continued to be widely used. Other abuses included ill-treatment of prisoners and torture as in Egypt, "disappearances" in Syria, and killings of civilians in Algeria.9

Women, notwithstanding constitutional guarantees in several countries, have little political power. With only a few exceptions, Arab women do not occupy leading executive, legislative, or judicial positions. Six of the seventeen Arab countries have not yet endorsed women's right to vote and have not yet given women the right to stand for election. (Table 4) Most Arab states have legislation that in many respects relegates women to an inferior status, and only Tunisia has legislated formal equality and monogamy. A study sponsored by the United Nations finds that the "majority of Arab women are either ignorant of their rights or are too impoverished to either claim or defend such rights. High illiteracy levels, economic hardship, unemployment, and poor educational attainment make women's awareness of and claim to their legal and political rights a luxury they cannot afford."10

Indices help specify political and social trends. Gender Empowerment Measure developed by the United Nations Development Program shows the weak role and status of Arab women. Taking into account the percentages of seats in parliament held by women, of female administrators and managers, of female professional and technical workers, and of women's share of earned income it finds Kuwait ranking 72nd (of 174 countries in 1999), Tunisia 75th, Syria 81st, Morocco 84th, Egypt 86th, Algeria 92nd, United Arab Emirates 96th, Sudan 97th, and Jordan 98th.11

Press freedom, as measured by Freedom House, does not exist in most Arab countries. Information control and the muzzling of journalists by governments, as well as self-censorship by journalists for fear of reprisals or being excluded from future access to news, continue. A press study of 186 countries rates the seventeen Arab countries: none have "free" print and broadcast media, 2 (or 12 percent) are "partly free," and 15 (or 88 percent) are "not free." (Table 5)

Prosperity is fairly high across the region, but unevenly distributed. The redistributed oil wealth of some countries is reflected in their gross domestic product (GDP) and in their per capita income. The latter (as expressed in purchasing power parity), ranges from a high of $25,300 in Kuwait to a low of $800 in Yemen, with a weighted mean of $4,100. When the UNDP's Human Development Index (HDI) is used, only four Arab countries have rankings of high development; eleven others have rankings of medium human development; and the remaining two are ranked with low human development. (Table 6) All the countries scoring high on HDI are Persian Gulf oil states with small populations. They have the financial resources to address the important issues of education, health, and social welfare. Thus far, however, prosperity has not led to advances in democratic government.

A different but related measure of economic growth, prosperity, and liberty is the Index of Economic Freedom, co-published by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal.12 The 2000 edition of the index-which surveys the economies of 161 countries in terms of their foreign investment codes, fiscal burden of government, tariffs, banking, and more - reports a general improvement in the economic freedom of most Arab states during the past year. Bahrain is the most economically free country among the Arab states, due primarily to "a lack of taxation on personal income and business profits," and ranks as the fourth economically most free country in the world.13 Other Arab states fare far less well: Saudi Arabia comes in at 71, Lebanon at 90, Egypt at 110, and Syria at 139. Libya and Iraq bring up the rear, ranking 159 and 160 (out of 161 countries).

As for political power, the Arab states include nine republics, four of them military dictatorships, while monarchs, sultans, and emirs rule eight others. Parliamentary power, where it exists, is weak, with appointed upper houses, and restrictions on opposition parties, where political parties are permitted at all. (Table 1) Suffrage is typically underdeveloped-nonexistent in several countries, restricted by gender or other factors in others, seldom transparent. Elections for the position of ruler are not permitted in at least eight countries, and elections for the legislative branches are not possible in four of them. (Table 2)

The Status of Democracy Index

Combining the above quantitative variables gives a sense of the status of democracy. Four variables address governance and representative government (how heads of state and members of the legislatures are selected, political parties, and suffrage).14 A fifth variable considers media freedom, based on the Freedom House annual survey. A sixth focuses on religious liberty, with the grading tied to reports by the U.S. Department of State and the International Coalition for Religious Freedom. A seventh addresses the observance of human rights, with the information from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Department of State. An eighth expresses the Human Development Index, which is provided by United Nations Development Program. A ninth relates to the Index of Economic Freedom, which measures the level of freedom and prospects for growth in the global economy.

Each of these nine variables is assigned two points for a total of 16 points or 100 percent. Each score ranges from 0 to 2, with 0 being the lowest, nonexistent, or no, and 2 being the highest or yes. (Table 7) If political parties are prohibited, the score is 0. If they are controlled by the government or need governmental approval to exist, it is 1. If they are reasonably free to function, it is 2. As for media freedom, the scoring is simple-0 for not free, 1 for partly free, and 2 for free. The same is true of religious liberty and human rights. Human development is scored on the level of development, with 0 for low, 1 for medium, and 2 for high. The last variable, economic freedom, is scored on the level of governmental interference in the economy, with 0 for strong interference, 1 for medium, and 2 for low.

Using this methodology, we see that Morocco scores the highest in the Arab world in terms of democracy, with 11 points out of 18 or 61 percent. The second highest rankings go to Jordan and Lebanon, with 10.5 points or 58 percent. The lowest rankings go to Iraq and Saudi Arabia with 2.5 points or 14 percent; and Sudan occupies the second lowest position, with 4.5 points or 25 percent. All in all, no Arab country falls within the 100th to 70th percentile, one falls within the 60th percentile, five fall within the 50th percentile, three within the 40th percentile, one within the 30th percentile, five within the 20th percentile, and two in the 10th percentile.

These measurements confirm what one would expect: that democracy is severely lacking in the Arab countries. The seventeen states have a common political characteristic - authoritarianism.

The seventeen Arab states have a common political characteristic - authoritarianism.


What accounts for this poor political record? A variety of factors - Islam, Arab culture and traditions, the region's political economy - have been blamed for the lack of democracy in the Arab world. Western imperialism and hegemony still serve as useable scapegoats, while Arab leaders and elites are frequently described as anti-democratic, notwithstanding their rhetoric. All these explanations find adherents both within and without the Arab world.

Thus, according to Mehran Tamadonfar, a political scientist who specializes in Islam, a polity is judged to be Muslim to the extent that it observes the basic teachings of Islam, which does not distinguish between the spiritual and the secular. Democracy and popular sovereignty, in the Western sense, are not acceptable, because they challenge the concept of divine sovereignty. The sovereignty of God is not questioned by a human ruler, or a government, that, in effect, enforces God's sovereignty by making the populace adhere to the Shari'a (sacred law of Islam).15

Muhammad Shakir ash-Sharif, a Saudi, writes that

democracy, which is "creeping" [tatasarrub] into the Muslim world, is incompatible with Islam because Islam offers governance by the Creator [al-khaliq], as understood by a properly instructed religious elite, whereas democracy, a non-Arabic term, necessarily implies rule by the created [al-makhluqin], in which unbelievers and the ignorant have an equal say in governance and usurp God's rule.16

By contrast, Michael C. Hudson, an authority on Arab affairs, sees the Arab hostility to democracy as based less in a theological view of politics than in

the insecurity of the ruling elite, based not necessarily on selfishness but on. . . a realistic appraisal of the situation, causes it to act autocratically. In the absence of legitimate structures, they cannot conceive of a loyal opposition-the chances are greater that it is subversive. Opposition leaders are right in labeling the incumbents as despotic. . . placed in the same situation, they invariably do the same thing.17

More cynically, author and journalist Saïd K. Aburish focuses on the reality of tribal power. Arab leaders, he writes "depend on phony claims to legitimacy while representing small interest groups-minorities whose members owe their allegiance to them rather than the state as the representative and guardian of the interests of the people."18 The West, Aburish holds, appreciates this because, "Stability means dictatorship and an ensuing coercion of the people which eliminates the chances of attaining legitimacy and democracy."19 John L. Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs, agrees: "For leaders in the West, democracy raises the prospect of old and reliable friends or client states being transformed into more independent and less predictable nations which might make Western access to oil less secure." Moreover, observes Esposito, democracy "risks the 'hijacking of democracy' by Islamic activists and further Islamic inroads into centers of power, threatening Western interests and fostering anti-Westernism and increased instability."20

For Ziad K. Abdelnour, an international financier, "the strength of authoritarian governments and the frailty of their democratic opponents" is due to the political economy of the Middle East. Moreover, he links democracy to issues of war and peace. The rulers do not operate only within the parameters of their polities and bureaucracies, but, he says, also make decisions based on

personal political bargaining [dictated] by the rules of the game they play . . . Decisions to wage war and sue for peace are pursued not as reflections of national interests or projections of national power, but rather because they may permit faltering authoritarian regimes renewed access to resources from the international system necessary to shore up their domestic positions.21

Simon Bromley, a specialist in international political economy, focuses on the patterns of social formation. Degrees of liberalization and political participation occur in countries such as Egypt where capitalist development has materialized outside "the direct control of the state apparatus" with its accompanying organization of "a civil society by the bourgeoisie and the working class." In countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where the state has kept control and prevented the creation of civil society, the prospects for democratic reform are limited. For Bromley, "the relative absence of democracy in the Middle East has little to do with the region's Islamic culture and much to do with its particular pattern of state formation."22

Obviously, no single explanation can account fully for the lack of democracy in the Arab world. Privilege and power have often been used to thwart democratic growth, as have religious extremism and special interests. This pattern debases human governance, twists religious beliefs, and undermines international affairs; worse, it usually leads to aggression and repression. The circling of tradition, the sharpening of religious swords, and the improper depletion of society's wealth provide a recipe for continued violence and unfulfilled expectations. The solution rests with the promotion of democracy.

Steps toward Democracy

A dismal present does not preclude change. As the sociologist Charles Kurzman notes, liberal ideas have gained strength over the past quarter century, buttressed by the rise of secular higher education, the growth of global communications, and the failure of Islamic regimes to deliver on their promises.23 Dictatorial rulers and regimes are not the only choice. The new kings of Jordan and Morocco (Abdullah II and Muhammad VI, respectively) are likely to be more liberal than their fathers. There is some evidence that the young leaders are ready to loosen information policy. For example, Qatar's young ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khlifa ath-Thani, has created the Jazira satellite television channel which airs uncensored newscasts around the world and "explores issues long suppressed by the region's rulers, including the lack of democracy, the persecution of political dissidents, and the repression of women."24 In all, it appears that "enlightened autocrats," rather than legal and democratic processes, are the engines of reform. Anthropologist Dale F. Eickelman argues that

in country after country, government officials, traditional religious scholars, and officially sanctioned preachers are finding it very hard to monopolize the tools of literate culture. The days have gone when governments and religious authorities can control what their people know, and what they think.25

What steps can be taken to enhance democracy in Arabic-speaking countries? There are three broad possibilities. Leave the trees as they are and move on - accept that Arabs and democracy don't mix. Cut down the trees and replant others - transform the Arab world according to Western doctrines and practices. Graft new (democratic) branches on the (Arab) trees.

The first is defeatist, the second too long-term and slow. The one accepts a civilization essence as permanent and unteachable. The second imposes democracy from above as a quick fix or as a convenient ploy, and so is doomed to be short-lived and counterproductive. The third offers the best way. Grafting permits a growth in the spirit of democracy without subverting authority and the social traditions of the region. When democracy originates from a common understanding of what it is and a shared vision of future possibilities, then it has a chance to succeed.

Where to start with the grafting? Probably with the separation of powers, an independent and strong parliament, an independent judiciary with an institutionalized legal order, and a workable mechanism for the transference of power. As sociologist Sami Zubaida writes,

A first step on the road to democracy must be the establishment of a legal and institutional framework which specifies and protects rights and procedures, which cannot be violated even by an elected government. Democracy can only make sense as part of a 'law state.'26

Following these, there are then many other changes to be introduced. Strong and viable political parties and interest groups, fair representation, accountability, and transparency in political life are good places to start. Then comes the enforcement of basic civil, human, religious, and political rights for all. Women's constitutional rights especially must be guaranteed and reinforced through proper institutions. Tolerance, respect for various points of view, and free speech are all important requirements for the healthy evolution of "civic culture."

The uneven distribution of resources needs to be adjusted. As political scientist Ali R. Abootalebi argues,

Inauguration of democratic elections in Muslims cultures without addressing the fundamental problem of uneven distribution of socioeconomic and political resources in these countries will not succeed.27

The transition to democracy is not an easy path. Grafting democracy will not work everywhere in the Arab world. Autocratic rulers and dogma-driven extremists will not oblige. Others need to educate for democracy and to demand change.

Democracies should assist the Arab countries by initiating serious dialogues with them and then taking steps to sustain the democratization process. This includes promoting democratic principles and practices and giving electoral assistance. If democracy is assaulted anywhere, democracies should join forces to impose punitive measures on aggressors. President Jimmy Carter's human rights campaign and its role in U.S. foreign policy served to undermine several authoritarian regimes. President Ronald Reagan's focus on both democracy and human rights exerted pressure on and made crumble not only dictatorships in Latin American, South America, and Asia, but also totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The momentum that created the international military coalition against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s can perhaps be recaptured to build an international peace coalition for promoting and sustaining democracy.

To shed its authoritarian ways and create an atmosphere of understanding and tolerance where individual freedom and collective aspirations are respected, Arabs must build appropriate institutions and responsible decision-making processes. Democratic reforms are a must if Arabs wish to balance modernization with political development, and to achieve real progress.

Saliba Sarsar is associate professor of political science and the associate vice president for Academic Program Initiatives at Monmouth University, New Jersey.

1 Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), p. 170.

2 Jean-François Revel, trans. Roger Kaplan, Democracy against Itself: The Future of the Democratic Impulse (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 199-221; Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, pp. 22-49.

3 Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 174-186. For other analyses of the relationship between Islam and democracy, see John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 214-221; note 8, pp. 266-267; notes 71 and 75, p. 269.

4 James A. Brill and Robert Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, 5th ed., (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 2000), p. 173; Deborah J. Gerner and Philip A. Schrodt, "Middle Eastern Politics," Deborah J. Gerner, ed., Understanding the Contemporary Middle East (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2000), pp. 92-93.

5 Saïd K. Aburish, A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), p. 13; Halim Barakat, The Arab World: Society, Culture and State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 39-40.

6 Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. We are purposefully excluding the Palestinian Authority, which is not a full-fledged state, and other members of the Arab League (Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia) which are at best honorary affiliates.

7 United States Policies in Support of Religious Freedom: Focus on Christians (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Affairs, United States Department of State, July 22, 1997) at…ts/970722_relig_rpt_christian.html; Religious Freedom in the Middle East, International Coalition for Religious Freedom at

8 Human Rights Watch Report, 1998 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998) at http:www.hrw/org/worldreport/Mideast.htm.

9 Annual Report 1999: Middle East and North Africa (London: Amnesty International, 1999) at; Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998 (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Affairs, United States Department of State, Feb. 26, 1999), at…8_hrp_report/98hrp_report_toc.html.

10 United Nations Economic and Social Commission of Western Asia and the Center of Arab Women for Training and Research, Arab Women 1995: Trends, Statistics, and Indicators (New York: United Nations, 1997), p. 113.

11 United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 1999 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 142-145. The other Arab countries, including, Iraq, Libya, and Lebanon are listed but without specific numbers.

12 Gerald P. O'Driscoll, Jr., Kim R. Holmes & Melanie Kirkpatrick, 2000 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, 2000) at

13 Following Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Zealand.

14 The data are taken from the CIA's World Factbook and United Nations sources.

15 Mehran Tamadonfar, The Islamic Polity and Political Leadership: Fundamentalism, Sectarianism, and Pragmatism (Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1989), pp. 40-42, 54-55.

16 Quoted in Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 40-41.

17 Michael C. Hudson, Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 395.

18 Saïd K. Aburish, A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), p. 13.

19 Aburish, A Brutal Friendship, p. 18.

20 John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 215-216.

21 Ziad K. Abdelnour, "Democratizing the Middle East: Challenges and Opportunities," The Star: Jordan's Political, Economic, and Cultural Weekly Online, June 19, 1997, at

22 Simon Bromley, Rethinking Middle East Politics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), p. 169.

23 Charles Kurzman, "Liberal Islam: Prospects and Challenges," Middle East Review of International Affairs, Sept. 1999, at

24 The New York Times, July 4, 1999.

25 Dale F. Eickelman, "The Coming Transformation of the Muslim World," Middle East Review of International Affairs, Sept. 1999, at; The New York Times, Aug. 1, 1999.

26 Sami Zubaida, Islam, the People, and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris Co., 1993), p. xxii.

27 Ali R. Abootalebi, "Islam, Islamists, and Democracy," Middle East Review of International Affairs, Mar. 1999, at