Social scientists and the news media often display a faulty understanding of the process of democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, three scholars said on Tuesday during a panel discussion at the annual meeting here of the Middle East Studies Association.
The scholars had varying levels of optimism about the near-term prospects for democracy in the region. But all agreed that political scientists and popular writers tend to lean too heavily on religious and cultural explanations for the persistence of tyranny in Arab countries and in the broader Islamic world.
The tenets and institutions of Islam are not necessarily a serious barrier to democracy, said Feriha Perekli, a graduate student in Middle Eastern studies and linguistics at Indiana University at Bloomington. The Islamic tradition of consultative governance is theoretically compatible with modern democratic institutions, she said.
It is more useful, Ms. Perekli said, to look not at religion but at the institutional structures of Arab countries. Borrowing a model developed by Richard Snyder, an associate professor of political science at Brown University, Ms. Perekli argued that most Arab nations today lack the structural conditions that typically foreshadow the emergence of democracy.
First, she said, in most Middle Eastern countries the military is tightly bound to the state. In countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, she said, the top military officials are typically close relatives of the monarchs.
Second, the countries' domestic elites are not highly alienated. Most Middle Eastern regimes, she said, have effectively co-opted their countries' economic elites and have permitted just enough freedom in civil society to provide a safety valve for elite discontent.
Finally, there is no coherent opposition with mass popular support. The divisions between secular and Islamist reform movements, Ms. Perekli said, have prevented the emergence of such a coherent opposition.
Until those three structural conditions change, Ms. Perekli argued, there is not likely to be a successful democratic upheaval. "This is not an optimistic picture," she said.
Robert Quinn Mecham, an assistant professor of political science at Middlebury College, took up the question of why some historically militant Islamist movements have recently moderated their tactics and chosen to participate in electoral politics. The most dramatic example of that phenomenon is Turkey's Justice and Development Party, which won a parliamentary majority in 2002.
The two most common explanations for the recent Islamist moderation are both inadequate, Mr. Mecham said. One is that "repression works" -- that is, that Egypt, Turkey, and other regimes have successfully intimidated Islamist movements into giving up their militancy. On the contrary, Mr. Mecham said, there is reason to believe that repression has often been counterproductive. Mass arrests have sometimes given Islamist movements a sheen of popular legitimacy, and state repression has also sometimes led to new cycles of bombings and terrorist attacks.
The second inadequate explanation is that radical Islamist activists changed their beliefs -- that is, they made a conscious decision that Islam was compatible with democracy, and then decided to participate in the electoral arena. That may be true, Mr. Mecham said, but it is almost impossible to prove. And it is just as likely, he said, that the movements initially decided to enter elections for short-term reasons, and then later moderated their platforms as they became more deeply enmeshed in the game of winning votes.
"Under conditions of electoral competition, Islamists are sensitive to potential constituencies, just like any other political actor," Mr. Mecham said. "There is learning that takes place over time, as competition becomes routinized." There is a large potential "center-right" in most Middle Eastern countries, Mr. Mecham said, composed of culturally conservative voters whose major concerns are corruption, social stability, and economic growth. "With relatively small adjustments to their platforms," Mr. Mecham said, "the Islamist parties have found that they can have wide appeal."
Iliya F. Harik, a professor emeritus of political science at Indiana, criticized the annual "Freedom in the World" rankings produced by Freedom House, a nonprofit organization based in Washington. The rankings, he said, are "extremely influential both among government officials and among comparativists in political science" -- and he believes that they have recently buttressed the false idea that the Arab world is uniquely undemocratic.
"I'm not talking about tyrannies like Libya, Saudi Arabia, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq," Mr. Harik said. "I'm talking about countries that are democratizing, albeit too slowly. Algeria, Egypt, and Lebanon are all still classified as 'non-free,' period." Recent steps toward democracy -- especially in Lebanon -- have been underappreciated by Freedom House's analysts, Mr. Harik said. He finds it odd that Kuwait, where women won the right to vote only six months ago, gets a "partly free" rating, better than Lebanon's more-fluid constitutional system.
Mr. Harik added that he fears the inductive, data-driven style of comparative political science that he learned as a student in the 1960s is being replaced by a "normative model of democracy" in which analysts are driven by their preconceived ideas about how and where political evolution takes place.
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Arch Puddington, Freedom House's director of research, said that the 2005 Freedom in the World report, which will be released in late December, will reflect some improvement in the Middle East. "A number of countries in that region," he said, "are going to show some modest, but within the global context, significant progress."
Mr. Puddington also said that other organizations' indices of democracy and political liberty have produced results similar to Freedom House's. "The Middle East, I'm sorry to say, is at the bottom of the heap," he said. "Countries like Algeria and Egypt have made some efforts at reform, but they are so far pretty unimpressive efforts. We do see a number of hopeful signs, but these countries are all starting from a low base line."