Can democracy thrive in Arab world?

tunisia demoThe world celebrated the “Arab Spring” as evidence that the people of the Middle East, like those everywhere, yearn to be free. But time has not been kind to the optimists, writes AP analyst Dan Perry:

After some hiccups, Tunisia is the one bright light today, with a free presidential election planned later this month. But across the Middle East, bloodshed, chaos and dashed dreams were far more often the result.

Hundreds of thousands have died, most in a ferocious and seemingly unwinnable Syrian civil war that has displaced millions, spilled over into Iraq, and threatens to destabilize other neighboring countries. Libya is an ungovernable and dangerous mess. And Islamic radicals have seized the discourse to a great extent; a US-led coalition fights them now, in Syria and Iraq.

“We can expect democratic transitions to be messy, chaotic and sometimes bloody, but this is worse than even the worst expectations,” said Shadi Hamid, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution.

The biggest and most unfortunate lesson people learned, he said, is that peaceful protest does not necessarily lead to a peaceful way forward or toward democratic transition, Perry adds:

Increasingly, people in the region are asking whether democracy is even a good idea in the Arab world. The question seems unfit for polite society, but it was already on the table in January 2011, as a panel of Arab finance figures considered events back home from the comfort of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, its members clearly none too pleased.

One recommended strong but “benevolent” leaders for the region. Another said democracy was alien to a region where patriarchal traditions dominate. A third said the public needs education lest it simply vote along tribal lines. Others saw radical Islamists swiftly bamboozling the masses.


Paradigms Lost: Middle East’s Trends and Drivers

Salem 2014_0Four years after the uprisings that broke the mold of the old Middle East, 2015 promises to be another year of tumultuous change, notes Paul Salem, the Middle East Institute’s Vice President for Policy and Research. The eruptions of 2011 unleashed decades of pent-up tensions and dysfunction in the political, socioeconomic, and cultural spheres; these dynamics will take many years, if not decades, to play themselves out and settle into new paradigms and equilibriums.

In 2014, four Arab countries—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—sank decisively into the ranks of failed states with no longer any effective central authority over the expanse of national territory, he notes:

ISIS arose as the largest radical threat in the region’s modern history, challenging political borders and order and proposing political identities and governance paradigms. Sunni-Shi’i conflict intensified throughout the Levant and reached Yemen; an intra-Sunni conflict also pitted supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

arab reformEgypt rebuked its previously ruling Islamists and elected a military officer as president who has prioritized security and economics and cracked down heavily on dissent. Tunisia’s secular nationalists and Islamists found a way forward with a new constitution and inclusive national elections. Jordan and Lebanon have managed to maintain stability despite massive refugee inflows. A cautious Algeria maintained its status quo, reelecting an aging president to a fourth term. And Morocco continued its experiment in accommodation between a powerful monarchy and a government led by the moderate Islamist PJD party….

2015 promises to be no less turbulent than 2014, as domestic and regional dynamics continue to play out, says Salem:

The Battles of the Youth Bulge

Prime among these is a demographic youth bulge of historic proportions that burst the precarious piping of the old political and socioeconomic structures and will continue to overwhelm the social and institutional orders of the region for some time. Two thirds of the population is under the age of 30 and their search for jobs, identity, and empowerment will fuel the tumult of the region for many years. …

Power Shift toward the Populace

Advances in technology and communication have led to a power shift from once all-dominant states to an increasingly informed, powerful, and demanding populace, both as communities and individuals. They have access to the global web of information and communication; they can build virtual societies and communities of identity and interest; and they can mobilize and coordinate. …

Failing and Resurging States

ARAB BAROMETER LOGOTwenty percent of Arab states have failed in the past few years, others are teetering, some have adapted, and still others have regrouped to reassert old power. The failed states—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—have in common conditions of low national unity, but they have failed for different reasons. .….

Paradigms Lost

The Arab uprisings of 2011 heralded that the past paradigms had broken, but this created a scramble for new paradigms, and to date no new paradigm has emerged as paramount. The old paradigm of repressive authoritarianism and quiescent populations, in exchange for socioeconomic development, broke down in the face of slow and unequal economic growth, growing popular empowerment, and worsening government corruption and repression. The initial uprisings inarticulately threw up outlines of a paradigm of democratic, pluralistic, and socially just government. The Muslim Brotherhood proposed a paradigm of Islamist government. The military in Egypt is proposing a neo-nationalist paradigm in which order and economic growth are paramount. The Moroccan king might be on the road to evolving a constitutional monarchy. Lebanon and Tunisia are managing precarious but pluralistic and power sharing political systems. ….

Three years ago, Arab public opinion was resonant with a loose paradigm of popular empowerment and accountable and inclusive government; today it is a bickering Babel of competing paradigms. Until the region settles on a governance paradigm—as Western Europe did, albeit after centuries of conflict—this cacophony of visions and ideologies will continue to bedevil the region.  In the long run as this century develops, democratic and inclusive government—whether as constitutional monarchy or republican democracy—will probably be the only sustainable paradigm.

Political Islam and Secular Nationalism

islamists nytThese have been the best of years and the worst of years for political Islam. ….. Although nationalism has lost much of the ideological clarity it had several decades ago, in the face of strong Islamist narratives that seek to rearrange community and society along religious lines, there has been a resurgence in some countries of attachment to the broad outlines of nationalism that base community on attachment to the nation-state and the constitutions, institutions, and laws that it promulgates.

State and Civil Society

Civil society remains a key deficit in the Arab world. It played a key role in pushing back against an Islamist hegemony and pushing forward a political transition in Tunisia. It is essential in keeping the complex Lebanese social system together and inching forward. It played a key role in Egypt and other countries in 2011, demanding a new way forward. But in countries where civil society was weak, it was either overtaken by better organized Islamist movements, more powerful sectarian divisions, or a resurging state. In the attempt to rebuild national stability, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, it is important to realize that civil society is an ally in reclaiming public space and social power from divisive Islamist or sectarian narratives, and is a key factor in creating stable and sustainable state structures. Both the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Assad regime in Syria were deeply skeptical of civil society and preferred Islamist organizations to fill up social space. This ultimately weakened the state and weakened state-society cohesion. In the long run, a healthy civil and political society provides the living link between state and society and provides the bedrock for state stability and the main antidote for radical movements….

Looking for White Swans

The region will continue to furnish the world with well more than its fair share of crises. The West took about five centuries to transition from medieval to “modern,” working through its wars of religion and battles to establish national identities and state borders, transform worldviews, try out radical ideologies, and eventually evolve toward stability, coexistence, and liberal democracy. This only occurred after two devastating world wars and genocide in the twentieth century. The Middle East started its profound transformation roughly a century and a half ago. It will take more than a few years to work itself out.

In the short term, extrapolating into 2015, the time horizon might be close enough to venture a few estimates. First, I do not mean to imply that the Middle East will be defined only by crisis. The majority of countries in the region, from Morocco to Iran, will likely maintain basic stability while working through various political, social, and economic challenges. Only a minority, including at least Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, will predictably continue in deep crisis….

Iran’s regional policy, led by the Revolutionary Guards, continues to expand and founder at the same time. In the past three years, Iran’s proxies in Baghdad and Damascus have lost control of their countries and control now only rump states. In Syria, Iran had to send Hezbollah and its own commanders, trainers, and valuable resources to save the Assad regime from collapse; this effort has stretched Hezbollah and Iran, but Iran has shown no serious interest in real political change in Damascus as a way out of the crisis. …The trouble for Iran—and indeed its neighbors—is while its influence is expanding in the region, its policies are leading to the collapse of once-functioning states and to explosive sectarian tensions.


‘War of ideas’: How Jordan uses Islam against Islamic State

ISIS MEMRIMany people in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan fear the ideological appeal of the Islamic State could create a homegrown threat from the militant group. To counter this potential threat, Jordan has imposed new rules on its Muslim clerics, the Arab Barometer’s Michael Robbins and Lawrence Rubin of the Georgia Institute of Technology write for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:

For some, engagement in the “war of ideas” at home in a state with a very robust security and intelligence apparatus may be deemed unnecessary…. In fact, evidence from across the region suggests that these efforts may encourage vehement opposition and fail to stem the tide of radical Islam. How likely are Jordan’s renewed efforts to achieve the desired results?

Based on Jordan’s past experience, the kingdom has a better chance to succeed than most other countries in the region. Moreover, if Jordan continues its approach of responding to crisis through gradual institutional change, the Hashemite regime’s reforms are likely to be an effective counter to the Islamic State.

The recent article “The Rise of Official Islam in Jordan” in Politics, Religion & Ideology demonstrates that state efforts to control and manage the ideas and discourse in the religious public sphere have a long history in the Arab world.

ARAB BAROMETER LOGOUsing public opinion data from the Arab Barometer, our previous research shows that the Jordanian public supports regime efforts to restrict the political space. Indeed, the Jordanian state appears to have developed a credible form of official Islam that has effectively controlled the religious space, they contend:

How has Jordan been able to achieve this outcome while other states in the region have struggled? First, the Jordanian state has been able to build up religious institutions because there were no strong centers of religious authority before the establishment of the state. …..Second, Jordan has built up these institutions gradually and strategically in response to threats rather than to preempt them.

“This step-by-step development over the last 35 years, as opposed to a clear takeover of the religious space, has demonstrated a long-term strategy by the regime to deal with the crisis at hand, yet not to overreach into the religious space with illegitimate institutions,” they conclude.


Michael Robbins (@mdhrobbins) is the director of the Arab Barometer(@arabbarometer). His work on Arab public opinion, political Islam and political parties has been published in Comparative Political Studies, the Journal of Conflict Resolution and the Journal of Democracy. Lawrence Rubin (@lprubin73) is assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of “Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics” (Stanford University Press, 2014).

Arab Democracy Index finds ‘buds of democracy growing in region’

arab reformDespite setbacks, reversals and disappointments of the Arab Spring, the latest edition of the Arab Democracy Index identifies an overall positive impact on the nine countries covered by its in-depth survey carried out by Arab social scientists.

Ranking of the 9 countries surveyed:

  • The top country registering overall positive changes and reforms is Morocco, followed by Jordan and Algeria. The fact that Morocco and Jordan have not witnessed uprisings shows that gradual change through reform is less costly. Algeria’s significant progress is the nervous response of a defensive regime spending billions in social and economic benefits to silence political demands.
  • The surprise is that Egypt and Tunisia (in 4th and 6th place) which experienced major revolutions – saw no change in ranking since 2011. This is because though real progress in freedoms was registered, these were countered by poorer living conditions and rising insecurity.
  • Bahrain came last, reflecting the most negative scenario, where a popular uprising – as in Libya, Syria and Yemen – was met with a harsh response in order to restore the government instead of allowing change.

“The good news is that in spite of the turbulence, the buds of democracy are growing in the Arab region,” said Bassma Kodmani, Director of the Arab Reform Initiative. “Our latest Index reveals that the seeds of change have propagated. Even more exciting is the fact that the countries’ rulers are responding to demands – in order to survive.”

Results confirm the good news that:

  • while growth is slow, the signals of continuing progress in democratic reforms are there;
  • public protest is the most effective compared to other means of pressure;
  • governments that didn’t want to give in on civic and political rights have developed emergency social and economic welfare plans to silence political demands. Thus the people have benefitted in one way or another.

The countries surveyed in ADI IV can be categorized into three types:

1. Countries that underwent revolutions

2. Countries affected by the uprisings in neighboring states

3. Countries that have taken a slow reform approach.

Recommendations for each country are offered on policy reform in order to encourage democratization, constitutional reforms and greater transparency. They range from granting greater freedom of expression in Algeria; to giving legal protection to those who denounce corruption in Lebanon; to allowing free establishment of political parties and associations in Kuwait.

Conclusion: the ruling Arab elites have realized that they must bring in reforms in order to survive. The current popular pressure will not be diffused through the old strategies of undemocratic co-option and cosmetic reforms.

*The Summary in English and the full report in Arabic are available on or click below. A podcast interview with Bassma Kodmani discussing the ADI IV is available to access here.

After the Arab Spring: support for democracy high, political Islam in decline

arab barometer

Despite the setbacks of the Arab Spring, support for democracy remains high while support for political Islam has decreased, according to Michael Robbins, the director of the Arab Barometer, and Mark Tessler, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan and the author of “Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens” (Indiana University Press, 2015).

Interacting these two trends, a key finding of the Arab Barometer is that Islamic democrats – those who support both democracy and political Islam – are becoming scarcer across the region, they write for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

islam and politics in mideastArab publics continue overwhelmingly to support democracy. In all but one country surveyed, three-quarters or more of respondents in the third wave of surveys (late 2012-2014) agree or strongly agree with the statement “A democratic system may have problems, yet it is better than other political systems.” This belief is most widespread in Lebanon (85 percent) and Egypt (84 percent), followed by Tunisia (83 percent), Algeria (82 percent), Jordan (81 percent), and Palestine (81 percent). Although lowest among the countries surveyed, overwhelming majorities also favor democracy in Iraq (76 percent) and Yemen (73 percent).

Since the Arab uprisings, support for democracy has decreased the most in Iraq and Yemen, falling by 10 points and 9 points, respectively. …. Support for political Islam is substantially lower. In no country do more than half of respondents say religious leaders should have influence over government decisions. It is often far less support, including just 34 percent in Algeria, 27 percent in Tunisia, 20 percent in Egypt and 9 percent in Lebanon. Moreover, support for political Islam declined over the past decade. …..

There are two exceptions to this trend: Jordan and Tunisia. In Jordan, support for political Islam has held relatively steady across all three surveys. ….In Tunisia, there has been no significant aggregate change in support for political Islam. ……

Examining attitudes toward democracy and political Islam simultaneously provides additional insight into the types of political system that Arab publics favor. The combination of the two measures yields four distinct orientations: democratic secular, democratic with Islam, authoritarian secular and authoritarian with Islam.….

There has been no clear example of success in combining political Islam with democracy, which presents a challenge for Islamic democrats.


The Arab Barometer team will discuss findings from the project’s third wave of surveys at a public event at the U.S. Institute of Peace Oct. 31. A live Webcast will be available.

Michael Robbins (@mdhrobbins) is the director of the Arab Barometer(@arabbarometer). His work on Arab public opinion, political Islam and political parties has been published in Comparative Political Studies, the Journal of Conflict Resolution and the Journal of Democracy. Mark Tessler is the Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. He co-directs the Arab Barometer. He is the author of “Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens” (Indiana University Press, 2015).