Is the main threat to sustainable democratic transitions emerging from the Arab world’s populist revolts also the cause of the region’s historic democracy deficit?
It is not Islam, Arab culture, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the curse of oil wealth that impedes democratic change, but the political legacy of Muslim military conquest, claims a Brookings Institution analysis.
The Arab democracy deficit “is a product of the long-run influence of control structures developed under Islamic empires in the pre-modern era,” says economist Eric Chaney.
Distinguishing between countries that became Islamic by conversion, like Indonesia, or conquest, like much of the Arab world and Central Asia, he finds that in the latter, “historic control structures have left a legacy of weak civil societies where political power is concentrated today in the hands of military and religious leaders that work to perpetuate the status quo.”
By dividing the Muslim world into conquered countries and those spared conquest, Mr Chaney finds that the democratic deficit remains for the former group but vanishes for the latter. Conquered non-Arab states like Uzbekistan look like those in the Arab League whereas non-conquered Muslim states like Albania and Indonesia do not
The institutional legacy of military conquest includes the denial or suffocation of political space for independent civil society groups such as labor unions, Chaney asserts. This potentially undermines the emergence organized labor’s ability to act as an autonomous countervailing power or check on new forms of authoritarian rule.
“The region’s institutional history shows that overwhelming popular support for Islamists may undermine democratic efforts by concentrating political power in the hands of these groups,’ Chaney cautions:
Indeed, the recent past shows that Islamists are just as likely to establish autocratic rule as other groups in the absence of checks on their power. Thus, unless other interest groups –such as labor unions or commercial interests- check their power, Islamists may replace secular rulers and usher in a new wave of autocracy in some Arab countries.
While his analysis is historically-rooted, it is by no means determinist, while highlighting the varying constraints on democratic prospects.
“Despite these limitations, at some level the structural changes the region has undergone over the past 60 years have made the Arab world more fertile ground for sustained democratic change today than at any time in the past,” Chaney notes:
Indeed, the widespread protests that swept across the region in 2011 have no precedent in the region’s history. That having been said, in some countries of the Arab world (e.g. Egypt or Yemen) the present-day political equilibrium seems more similar to the historical equilibrium that has accompanied autocratic institutions than in others (e.g. Tunisia). In this sense, history suggests that democracy is less likely to emerge in the former group of countries than in the latter.