Can the Middle East Become a Region of Democracy?

Can the Middle East Become a Region of Democracy?

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This paper examines whether the Middle East can become a region of democracy or not. Several models of democracies success and failures in various developing countries are taken as case studies to model for the Middle East in arriving at the thesis proposition. In conclusion, the Middle East proves to be capable economically and socially of establishing and sustaining democracy. The reasoning and validation for this hypothesis including its shortcomings are ensued in the following paragraphs. Finally, democracy in the long term is justified to be the right step towards the Middle East political, social, and economic development.

As a start, the measure of the level of democracy in nations throughout the Middle East was published by theFreedom Houseand ranked Israel,Kuwait,Tunisia,Lebanon,Turkey, andMorocco as democracies, EgyptandIraq as partly democratic, and the remaining countries asauthoritarian regimes (Puddington). Events of theArab Spring may indicate a move towards democracy in some Middle Eastern countries; however, time and time again it is argued that democracy is slightly incompatible with Middle Eastern ‘tribal’ values. Moreover, the problem that most of the countries in the Middle East fail to develop politically is that the government essentially ‘bribes’ the citizenry with extensive social welfare programs, resulting in a lack of political freedom. Additionally, the absence ofliberal democracyin the Middle East can be explained from the history of imperial rule by theOttoman Empire,BritainandFranceand the contemporary political and military intervention by theUnited States. All of these preferred the authoritarian regimes, they controlled the business, resources, and gave power to the ruling elite. Thanks to the Arab Spring, a battle of ideas has emerged begging the question “Can the Middle East become a region of democracy?” In writing this paper, we started from the premise that ‘democracy’ means more than elections and is characterized by a free media, freedom of speech, the freedom to associate and organize, and the recognition that the state exists to serve individuals (Bernstein). The current dilemma is whether democracy will take root and survive in the newly politically reformed Middle East. Factors ranging from economics, social structure, and political culture are of the influential variables in determining whether a country is prepared for the transition to a democracy or not. In the following case study, we review these factors that have been generally recognized as preconditions for democracy. After that, we analyze the experiences of India and Brazil, who prove that the strengthening of democratic institutions does not obstruct development, but rather enables it. Although these countries and the Middle East have widely divergent histories, they have faced some remarkably similar challenges, and we argue that their success can be extrapolated to the Middle Eastern Region.

An important question to ask is whether democracy is feasible in the Middle East, which is less economically developed. Seymoure Lipset, an American political sociologist, determined that democracy was much more widespread in industrialized nations than in poverty stricken counterparts, emphasized in his quote, “The more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy” (Berg-Schlosser and Kersting 95). The logic behind this correlation was that industrial development leads to greater financial prosperity, education, mass media, and social equality; these progresses are directly linked with a larger middle class, resultantly increasing the likelihood of a steadier democracy (Berg-Schlosser and Kersting 112). Furthermore, Phillips Cutright, an English political sociologist, observed that when unsystematic variables are controlled, there is a direct relation of a nation’s mass communications and its level of democracy, even greater than the relation between industrial prosperity and democracy (Powell and Hicky 48). The reasoning behind this correlation seemed to follow upon how an unrestrained mass media allows citizens to freely promote ideas in society. Axel Hadenius, a political science professor in Uppsala University, find democracy relates most with higher literacy rates and a more educated population (Pinkney 183). Greater levels of education appears to create a more intellectual society, who are more interested in following on politics, caring for their own interests, and partaking in the development of their county.

Figure 1: Middle East Literacy Rate Chart

As listed in Figure 1, all Middle Eastern countries have high literacy rates, promising well for the possibility of democracy in the region because nations whose people are fifty percent literate or more have a greater probability to become democratized (Pinkney 177). Subsequently, developing countries with an average income per year greater than $2,500 are predominantly democracies (Powell and Hicky 149), while those less than this markup are not; once again, this indicates that the Middle East, with the exception of Sudan, Eritrea, and Yemen, qualifies for this precondition.

Figure 2: Middle East GDP

However, developing literacy rates and national GDP does not make countries unavoidably more democratic. On the contrary, countries with moderate GDP are rather unsteady and more inclined to dictatorship. For example, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile are classified by the World Bank as upper-middle-income states, and their democratic regimes all fell to exploitive, military authoritarianisms in the late twentieth century (Rudebeck and Tornquist 221). In contrast, India, a low-income nation, has sustained a record for democracy (Rudebeck and Tornquist 257), even though a developing country.

Another theory of constructing and maintaining democracy is not pure economic development, but rather, the effect of it on its social structure. A firm democracy is conceivable via economic growth if necessary changes are made to the nation’s social structure. Historically, Aristotle associated democracy and political steadfastness to the existence of an active and considerable middle-income group (Haynes 15). Operating as the essential bond tying the upper and lower classes, the middle class was claimed to have the political and organizational abilities needed to build and develop vital democratic bodies. Hence, the process of democratization is weakened in countries whose economic progress was unsuccessful in deriving a politically independent and significant bourgeoisie. One needs only to look at the past to discover how political independence is influenced by an emergent middle class. In Northern Europe, industrial development formed a massive, prevailing, and economically liberated middle class and bourgeoisie; however, money and resources were more privatized to the upper class in Latin America, resulting in a dependent middle class (Haynes 60). Barrington Moore Jr., an American political sociologist, stated that with “No [strong and independent] bourgeoisie,” there is, “no democracy” (Hippler 77). Similarly, in Egypt today, the lack of an active middle class and a powerful bourgeoisie has detrimentally effected establishment and consolidation of democracy. Dr. Arend Oetker, an actively committed entrepreneur in Egypt interested in foreign affairs, is one of the contributors to Egypt’s growth, working with his own companies such as Hero and also contributing to the creation of the German University in Cairo (GUC). When asked in an interview if Egypt’s middle class was capable of creating a truly democratic future he replied:

“No, unfortunately for the moment there is no real middle class, neither from a perspective of wealth or from a demographic one. As in other Arab countries, about 30 percent of the population consists of young people aged between 15 and 29. There is an entire category of young people searching for their own role, but there are no jobs and therefore they are fighting to survive. So we are still very far from having a middle class…” (Egypt Still Does Not Have a Middle Class).

It is no surprise that Egyptians have been on the front lines in Tahrir struggling for democracy. Dr. Oetker put the revolution in a nutshell by claiming, “The problem at the heart of this revolution is not a new one. Young people with no future and no perspective, young people who have nothing to lose have always fuelled revolts” (Egypt Still Does Not Have a Middle Class). Very poor countries, whose middle classes are a minor group who rely on the state or landowners, are unlikely to realize or uphold a democratic government. This principle would apply to Egypt, where roughly forty percent of the population is under the poverty line (CIA). Egypt also suffered 25.2% in 2011 according to the poverty headcount ratio at national poverty lines index. (World Bank). Thus, developing countries can realistically attain democracy when a politically powerful, established working class strives for wider political representation and improved social justice (Haynes 201). Altogether, democracy is predisposed to success in a country where a politically prominent and liberated middle class surfaces as a result of economic modernization, capably securing the welfares of the working class. When the middle/lower classes are oppressed from authoritarian figures due to weakness, being a minority, or political dependence and having the powerful elite cope everything to their benefit, democracy is unlikely to materialize.

In many areas of the developing world, dictatorship is highly encouraged and supported. This is a system, which does not depend on self-rule or independent institutions, however, due to the accomplishments of China, Singapore, and other Asian areas, has become far more respectable. The evidence coming from India and Brazil, two important rising democracies, however, show that it is not necessary to sacrifice individual rights and freedom while adopting this system. It goes hand in hand with expanding opportunities for the citizens and achieving growth. In making this argument about India and Brazil, we do not in any way mean to imply that the sole purpose of democratic government is economic growth.

Democracy is a value in itself: individual rights and freedoms, democratically selected and accountable government, independent institutions and a culture of dissent have meaning and importance irrespective of whether they make people wealthy. Nor are we arguing that democracy is a necessary condition of inclusive growth: clearly, authoritarian societies can and have achieved a great deal of growth and development. Instead, we believe that the story of these countries exhibits how inclusive growth is possible in a democracy and is not an obstacle to growth, and in some cases can even be an enormous advantage to states pursuing high-growth strategies. This room for growth in democracies comes from a democracy’s ability to accomplish things that cannot be done in authoritarian states. Both elected leaders and their citizens can use the many rights, freedoms, processes, and institutions that a democracy facilitates to improve institutions when they falter or fail e.g. fight the scourge of corruption; argue for rule of law, an independent judiciary, better legislation, and regulations; give legitimacy, and create support for policies which may at first seem difficult to accept.

In Brazil, the transition to democracy took place under adverse economic conditions. Under the military governments of the 1980s, Brazil had triple-digit annual inflation, which worsened in the early nineties. The ‘Real Plan,’ initiated by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1994, finally brought inflation under control. Cardoso promoted fiscal restraint and a tight monetary policy and encouraged foreign investment, which was a major shift for Brazil’s previously insular economy. Throughout his presidency Cardoso controlled inflation while preparing Brazil for increased integration into the world economy. He reformed social security, the civil service and the tax system; promoted privatization of state-owned companies and sought to eliminate deficit spending at all levels of government. His successor President Lula (Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva) continued to uphold currency stability and fiscal austerity and did not reverse the privatization of public companies, although he represented a return to the political left. At the same time, President Lula introduced new social policy initiatives. In the period 1981-2003 GDP growth was low and irregular—a modest 0.7 percent annually—but starting in the mid-2000s, GDP growth accelerated, reaching an average of 4.2 percent, with per capita growth at 3 percent per annum. As a result of these changes, and despite more recent slowdowns, Brazilian poverty is now in single digits. The Bolsa Familia program, a conditional subsidy for poor families, is one among many contributors to this reduction. Urban jobs, a generous minimum wage, and the introduction of universal pensions have been far more important; the end of chronic inflation did more for the poor than any single program. Unemployment is now in single digits and the large informal economy is slowly shrinking as more people get formal jobs.

Following independence, impoverished India became the first country to give large numbers of illiterate people the right to vote, which caused doubt to arise even among those designing and promoting the institutions of Indian democracy. The country’s chief election commissioner described the general election of 1952 as “the biggest experiment in democracy in human history”. Half a century later, this experiment has succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations. In a subcontinent riven by divisions of language, caste, ethnicity, and religion, democracy has brought conflicts out into the open and built institutions for accommodating and incorporating hitherto excluded groups. Political analyst, Pratap Bhanu Mehta has written that, “Democracy in India is a phenomenon that by most accounts should not have existed, flourished, or indeed long endured,” yet it has “proven an effective and perhaps the only mechanism for holding India together.” As a result of democracy in India, the average growth in 1980-1992 was 5.5 percent per annum, 2003-2010 was 8.5 percent, and in 2005-2012, the size of the economy doubled. The impact of high growth on the poor has been greater than any produced by the ‘poverty agenda’ of the previous three decades. India’s poorest have benefited directly from this growth. The proportion of the population below the poverty line fell from 44.5 percent in 1983 to 27.5 percent in 2004/5 (and by some estimates down to 22 percent by 2011); during the same period the population rose by approximately 374 million. By one calculation, some 190 million people were lifted out of absolute poverty during this period.

Our review of developments in Brazil and India provides powerful insights into countries that have managed to achieve high growth without sacrificing the political freedoms and legitimacy that democracy provides. Their experiences offer not a single model, but rather multiple different approaches and solutions to particular challenges. For countries looking for innovative means of helping the poor, for lessons in resolving ethnic conflict, or for ways to make sure that economic growth brings benefits to the very poorest, these two countries offer lessons about what works and what doesn’t. On the contrary to the tarnished appeal of Western democracy and the rise of authoritarian China, there is a democratic alternative emerging from the developing countries whose success can be transferred into the Middle East region.

In a world of contesting ideas about approaches to governance and development, should the future of the Middle East be one dominated by authoritarian governments? Are autocracies the best means of producing economic growth and inclusion for the vast majority of the population? The evidence of Brazil and India’s democratic developing societies is compelling, and leads us to respond to this question with a resounding ‘no’. It is not necessary as some argue, to give up individual freedoms, rule of law, independent institutions, a free press, and regular elections if you are struggling with the challenges of poverty. On the contrary, democratic rights and freedoms can in numerous different ways help promote sustained development, higher economic growth, and effective routes out of poverty. However, it is important not to take democracy for granted. Once achieved, there are no guarantees: democratic rights and freedoms can easily be eroded. Democrats need to be vigilant and democracies need to renew and protect their hard won freedoms. The Middle East region need a new wave of reforms if they are to hold on to their many achievements of the Arab Spring and make further big strides in overcoming poverty and underdevelopment. Also, the Middle East needs to strengthen and increase the transparency and accountability of democratic representation, institutions and processes to upkeep the legitimacy of the democracy. By deepening and strengthening the new born Arab Spring democratic systems, reformers will ultimately be able to meet the economic, political, and social challenges they face today.

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