Why we should be patient with Middle East
August 13th, 2013
10:01 AM ET

Why we should be patient with Middle East

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.

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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.

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Topics: Middle East • Protests

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. JAL

    What is the psychology associated with significantly limited resources?

    August 13, 2013 at 10:12 am | Reply
  2. Joseph McCarthy

    Not only should we be patient with the Middle East but also vacate it altogether. The stupid current policy of occupying countries like Iraq and Afghanistan is totally senseless and needs to be dropped!

    August 13, 2013 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • Silverado

      Muslim committed the 9/11 crime. So, you Muslims deserve the consequences. Enjoy, "Jeseph"!

      August 13, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Reply
      • Ekram

        You have no clue, Silverado. I am sure you didn't get it what author tried to explain to you thick brain!

        August 14, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
  3. matslats

    The Middle East is a trying infant and we, a wise parent with our boot on its face.

    August 13, 2013 at 11:19 am | Reply
  4. vonrock

    'When did the People of the middle east ever have a rosey outlook ?

    It'll work obama F the schools, F the jobs, F their lives, their stupid remember.

    They believed your BIG LIE they'll believe them all. RIP

    August 13, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  5. Silverado

    Patience is a beggar's virtue. There is a limit beyond which patience ceases to be a virtue.

    August 13, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      There should be enough to go around. We are at a stage in history where we need to decide if we will fight over limited resources or act on the new ways to acquire resources so that there is enough to go around. The keepers of the resources, hopefully, are not a bunch of stooges. Your comment assumes that we will fight over limited resources.

      August 13, 2013 at 9:29 pm | Reply
    • Ekram

      I am sure your mom must have had tons of patience with you otherwise you wouldn't be here posting silly comments!

      August 14, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  6. Melanie

    Let's get systematic. Who are the most knowledgeable NATO coutries, that can significantly contribute for a positive longterm solution, peace and prosperity in the Middle East: Great Britain, France and Turkey. Then, who does not belong to the Western World: South Korea and China - we need to drop any collaboration with them; and implement inspection of imports, and block their imports as much as possible.

    August 14, 2013 at 3:22 am | Reply
    • Ekram

      Who gave you this right to suggest inspection of import and export of other countries. These are sort of things that are creating problems all over the world. Live and let live. Mind your own business!

      August 14, 2013 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  7. henrytobias

    Wait at least another 300 years for any type of democracy to be established in any Arab or Muslim country.

    August 14, 2013 at 6:23 am | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    The author is right that democratisation process is a long tortuous path and that we should be patient with the development in the Arab world, which is struggling to find its bearings after emerging the Arab spring. Yet we just can't turn a blind eye to bloodshed. No doubt there was much blood shed during the Russian Revolution and the clashes between demonstrators and security forces in various parts of Europe before and after World War One. The protesters in Egypt know they can't give in, as it would also have an impact on the future of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military is determined to restore law and order, to win back tourists and investors.

    August 14, 2013 at 10:11 am | Reply
  9. ollie

    Every Muslim Majority Country Is A FAILED STATE

    August 14, 2013 at 11:36 am | Reply
  10. myrtlemaylee

    This is a thoughtful piece, with much valuable insight. And I agree – none of us anywhere should ever give up or lose patience in trying to establish democracy of whatever form, peace & prosperity. But it overlooks one point that I, for one, would like to see addressed: the length of time. I'm no scholar, but it seems to me that the Middle Eastern countries have each & ALL achieved peace, prosperity & fair government many times over thousands of years, only to lose it for the same, old, tired reasons. And none of the countries/dynasties I'm familiar with ever had true democracies "of the people" etc. I don't believe this has been the case in the west, but I'm no expert. For me, I still have hope that the "Arab Spring" is a true, deep movement of all the people. Not simply the royal families, military or religious rulers, tribes, industries or whatever. When the people ultimately realize that they sink or rise together whatever their differences, perhaps true peace will exist for a while.

    August 14, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  11. Yuck

    It's all a psychological war fair.

    August 14, 2013 at 11:45 pm | Reply

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