Arab Spring Won't Bring Democracy to Middle East

The events in the Middle East and North Africa over the last year have been truly remarkable – information was communicated through social media at unprecedented speed, the Cold War “domino theory” may have found a new application, and never in the history of mankind has the world witnessed a downfall of autocratic regimes in a such an expedient way. On the surface, these events appear to be positive for the advancement of human and political rights, and even the potentiality for the further integration of the world economy. Moreover, it would seem that this year has helped to solidify global disdain for non-democratic states. 

Well, sure, democracy does those things. But, why should we expect the Middle East to do them as well? I have argued repeatedly over the past year that democracy was not going to flourish in the region, as pundits and absent-minded policymakers have suggested. Why is this so? I offer two answers; the lack of historical understanding of democratic transition and the failure to gain the necessary preconditions that democracy requires to exist effectively. A revolution garners a total transformation of society; this has not happened. Maybe our expectations are the real problem.

Professors Snyder and Mansfield, who wrote the groundbreaking piece on democractization and war, argued that, “Democratization typically creates a syndrome of weak central authority, unstable domestic coalitions, and high-energy mass politics. It brings new social groups and classes onto the political stage. Political leaders, finding no way to reconcile incompatible interests, resort to shortsighted bargains or reckless gambles in order to maintain their governing coalitions. Elites need to gain mass allies to defend their weakened positions.”

Needing public support, elites rouse the masses with nationalist propaganda but find that their mass allies, once mobilized by passionate appeals, are difficult to control. So are the powerful remnants of the old order — the military, for example — which promote militarism because it strengthens them institutionally. This is particularly true because democratization weakens the central government's ability to keep policy coherent and consistent.

Governing a society that is democratizing is like driving a car while throwing away the steering wheel, stepping on the gas, and fighting over which passenger will be in the driver's seat.

Does this not accurately describe Egypt? Can we not assess the entire range of post-autocratic states as such? These states have much more in common with Yemen and Pakistan than they do with 1989 Czechoslovakia and Poland.  As Niall Ferguson argued, “It is hard for such countries with young populations, high illiteracy, high food prices to move towards political systems like the West.”

The loose phrase of “transformation to democracy” does not mean that the transition of that process is peaceful; it does not even mean such a transition will even lead to democracy. Perhaps the West should do a service to Egypt and stop proclaiming and expecting a radical shift in the political ethos; it just simply is not going to happen like so.

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