April 10th, 2012
07:00 PM ET

Zakaria: Explaining the Arab world's democracy deficit

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

As Egypt's election campaign gathers pace, we are seeing the rise of candidates from Islamic parties, one more radical than the next. Across the Arab world, the promise of a new birth of freedom has been followed by a much messier reality.

It raises the question in many people's minds: Why does it seem that democracy has such a hard time taking root in the Arab world?

As it happens, a Harvard economics professor, Eric Chaney, recently presented a rigorous paper that helps unravel that knot. Chaney asks why there is a "democracy deficit" in the Arab world and systematically tests various hypotheses against the data. He notes that such majority-Muslim nations as Turkey, Indonesia, Albania, Bangladesh and Malaysia have functioning democratic systems, so the mere presence of Islam or Islamic culture cannot be to blame.

He looks at oil-rich states and again finds that some with vast energy reserves, like Saudi Arabia, lack democracy, but so do some without - like Syria. He asks whether Arab culture is the culprit, but this does not provide much clarity. Chaney points out that many countries in the Arab neighborhood seem to share in the democracy deficit - Chad, Iran, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan - yet they are not Arab.

Then Chaney constructs a persuasive hypothesis based in ancient history and modern economics. He notes that the democracy deficit today exists in lands that were conquered by Arab armies after the death in A.D. 632 of the Prophet Muhammad.

Lands that the Arabs controlled in the 12th century remain economically stunted today. This correlation is not simply a coincidence. Arab imperial control tended to mean weak civil society and a large role for the state in the economy. Chaney documents the latter, showing that the government's share of GDP is 7% higher on average among countries that were conquered by Arab armies than among those that were not. He also finds that these countries have fewer trade unions and less access to credit - features of a vibrant civil society.

There are less medieval factors. It has long been apparent that the dictatorships of the Middle East form close alliances with religious leaders to crowd out other leaders and groups. Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population had religious parties just as Egypt did. But it also had powerful groups that were less religious, more moderate and entirely secular. All these groups competed for influence on an even footing, something that is not happening in the Arab world.

Chaney's analysis reminds us that the real problem in a country like Egypt is that the military continues to keep power concentrated, undivided and unchecked. It maintains the central role in the economy. The chief challenge in the Arab world remains to create a vibrant civil society, which means political parties and also a strong, self-sustaining private sector.

The dysfunctions in the Arab world have ancient roots, going back over a thousand years. But this does not mean that the region is impervious to change. History, and the habits it engendered, are democracy's biggest foes in the Arab world. But as these habits change, things should improve. It is a prescription for the very long term, but at least it is a prescription.

For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to visit the Global Public Square every day. Also, for more What in the World? pieces, click here.


soundoff (190 Responses)
  1. krm1007

    The Arabs and muslims are learning from the thesis below and trying to evolve a paradigm that is more suitable to their culture, temperament and unique conditions. After all, democracy is not one size fits all as is evident with failures in India.

    "Experimental Democracy" has failed in India. An experiment that was being shoved down India's throat by western countries too eager to propagate their own values on a country that was trying to decolonize itself while trying to shed the communist skin of being a Soviet ally. India was thus trapped. What has become evident now is that this "Experimental Democracy" has marginalized the country. The marginalized groups of the country – Dalits and ‘backward’ castes/classes, indigenous ‘tribal’ people and religious minorities have been disenfranchised. "The belief that corruption is the important issue in the country is shared only by the minority living in urban areas and towns who have been beneficiaries of economic liberalization policies mandated by western countries. The most important challenges of Indian society remain as follows: justice, social and economic equality and equal access to certain standards of life for all Indians. “While India seems too eager to please its western masters and put on a progressive and softer face for CNN for public consumption, people see through it. The consequences of this "Band – Aid" approach will be brutal for India geo-politically when it realizes that the GDP statistics that it has been relying to gage its progress has not amounted to much in the long run.

    April 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  2. Patrick

    YOU said "failures in India"
    Can you explain what you mean?

    April 12, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • Mohammad A Dar

      Ya, hinduism, racism, crime against humanity, Yes, India is a democracy but in hind, filth of hinduism, racism. not of truth but of hindu soul, filthy desire of hidnu's, criminal racist by faith.

      April 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  3. Matt

    Indonesia is the only true democracy in the region, free and fair elections. But it is young no one can tell, you have al-Qaida (we killed them all) in cahoots with ex military and serving, trying to kill the President. SBY said they wanted to turn it into Iran. There are numerous factors, ideological differences, geopolitical. You just cannot say who it will turn out and that is to be expected of a new democracy. Many forces at work.

    SBY was told about the US Marines years ago, the Cocos they were not, Obama wants to be careful so does the Australians they will end up with a weakened declining defender US and a nuclear Indonesia and find them in a similar position to Israel. Albeit Israel is vastly superior militarily, than the Wizard of OZ.

    Things like the Cocos and lack of consultation work against SBY and the moderates, in fact it turns moderates hostile, I know it does me, start looking at counters. It made me uncomfortable.

    April 13, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
  4. Deadislam

    For Reality their muslim will burn their irrelevant primitive islamic books.
    For Reality their muslim will eliminate islam that cage enslave their lives.
    For Human Beings their muslim will sacrifice islam as foretold by islam itself.
    Even their islamic allah feels Boring to hear the same islamic prayer in sorrow 5 times a day from noisy mosques.
    Just turn off the loudspeaker mosques the noisy pollution the soul pollution only bring chaos conflicts all violence.
    For Human Beings Sacrifice islam! Crucify islam!
    See The Better Worlds Without islam the terrorist religion from the wrong past.

    April 14, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
  5. Doctor

    There cannot be Democracy in a Theocracy.
    Anyone trying to complicate this fact wants to have both, and it just can't happen.

    April 14, 2012 at 9:14 am | Reply
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  8. castillana

    Dire qu'il faut être professeur pour dire des âneries pareilles pour plaire et manipuler la moitié d'analphabètes qui peuplent les urnes! Rien de plus malhonnête intellectuellement que de faire le dangereux amalgame entre le pouvoir de Mo'awiya (les omeyades qui ont inventé le pouvoir héréditaire en terre d'islam) mais qui n'a rien à voir avec l'authenticité de l'Islam pour construire cette supercherie analytique. Mais de la part d'un anglophone c'est excusable puisque les musulmans des monarchies et des républiques héréditaires se taisent sur le sujet.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:38 am | Reply
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