By Jonathan Adelman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. The views expressed are his own.
When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, it was widely hailed as a harbinger of a democratic transformation of the Middle East. The overthrow of repressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had many hoping that the Arab Middle East might in turn overcome the “petro curse” of vast oil reserves and finally embrace a democratic future, joining the dozens of new democracies that have emerged across the globe since the end of the Cold War.
Two years later, it is easy to see why many in the West have started to reassess that rosy outlook. The excitement over events in Egypt has been replaced with disillusionment and confusion following the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s government just a year after he was elected. In Syria, meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to cling to power as the death toll in the brutal civil war that has engulfed the country passes the one hundred thousand mark.
Even Lebanon, for long the great democratic hope, has again found itself under the heel of authoritarian Hezbollah. Now, aside from a few isolated examples such as Tunisia, the prospects for democratic regimes in the Arab Middle East look bleak. How did it come to this?
Americans have grown impatient with the stop-start nature of democracy in the region, but if they stepped back to take a look at the bigger historical picture they might find that their frustration is misplaced.
In their love affair with the democratic revolution of 1776, many Americans forget how hard it was to create a lasting secular democracy. Indeed, even the Founding Fathers placed constraints on democracy with an Electoral College, a Senate that favored small states and that was elected by state legislatures (until 1913) and strict separation of powers. And while white males gained universal suffrage in 1828, women waited until 1920, and huge numbers of African-Americans until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Americans also forget the great advantages that have been enjoyed by their democracy – a well educated population, significant wealth (with a higher average income than England), pluralism, a crop of visionary leaders in its formative years such as George Washington and James Madison, and favorable geography, specifically an ultimately stable border to the north and the country’s significant distance from the turmoil of Europe.
The Arab Middle East, outside the Persian Gulf states, lacks nearly all of these factors that are so important in creating lasting democracy. For example, female literacy rates in Sudan, Egypt and Iraq are less than 50 percent, while five Arab states (Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Palestinians) cannot even crack the top 80 of the United Nations’ Global Development Index.
In addition, the region lacks the kind of tolerance necessary for a true democracy to thrive – support for executing Muslims who convert to Christianity is reportedly high in Egypt (64 percent) and Iraq (39 percent).
But the teething problems of democracy have extended well beyond the Middle East – across Africa, Central Asia and Southeast Asia, the Balkans and elsewhere, the road to democracy has frequently been blocked by strongmen, religious conflict and intolerance.
The fact is that democracy has been a hard, even impossible goal, for many countries most of the time. Even the Europeans, who had many of the attributes necessary to succeed, struggled for centuries to create long-term democracies. Those paragons of democratic virtue (England and France) did not establish durable long term democracies until 1863 (England, with its Second Great Reform Act) and 1871 (France, with its Third Republic). Germany, after a brief dalliance with the weak Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and Italy both took the fascist route, and did not create lasting democratic regimes until after they were defeated in World War II. Japan, likewise, was not able to establish a democracy until the post-World War II period, and only then after undergoing an American occupation and the writing of a constitution by outside forces. A rising China, meanwhile, is still under the rule of the Communist Party.
The Arab Middle East will eventually establish long term democratic regimes. But history is littered with examples of how difficult the path is to follow – and why we should not grow impatient or dismissive of the region’s prospects just yet.