No, democracy not being discarded?

freedom house -electoraldemocracies-2015

The global decline in freedom suggested by the new Freedom House annual Freedom in the World report – ‘Discarding Democracy: Return to the Iron Fist’ – is questionable, says political scientist Jay Ulfelder. 

Freedom House’s topline message is, for instance, belied by the trend over time in its count of electoral democracies – countries that hold mostly free and fair elections, he argues on his Dart-Throwing Chimp blog. By Freedom House’s own count, the number of electoral democracies actually increased by three in 2014 to an all-time high of 125, or more than two-thirds of all countries. 

FREEDOM HOUSE 2015So how can both of these things be true? How can the number of electoral democracies grow over a period when annual declines in freedom scores outnumber annual gains? Ulfelder asks:

The answer is that those declines are often occurring in countries that are already governed by authoritarian regimes, and they are often small in size. Meanwhile, some countries are still making jumps from autocracy to democracy that are usually larger in scale than the incremental declines and thus mostly offset the losses in the global tally. So, while those declines are surely bad for the citizens suffering through them, they rarely move countries from one side of the ledger to the other, and they have only a modest effect on the overall level of “freedom” in the system.

This year’s update on the Middle East shows what I mean. In its report, Freedom House identifies only one country in that region that made significant gains in freedom in 2014—Tunisia—against seven that saw declines: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. All seven of those decliners were already on the authoritarian side of the ledger going into 2014, however, and only four of the declines were large enough to move a country’s rating on one or both of the relevant indices.


Islamic State’s expansion model

ISIS MEMRIISIS continues to pursue its expansion model in Libya, Sinai, and other hotspots, raising new challenges that differ from those posed by al-Qaeda’s past franchise approach, says a leading analyst.

The Islamic State announced several months ago that it was “annexing” territory in Algeria, Libya, Sinai, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, notes Aaron Y. Zelin, the Richard Borow fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But there is one key difference between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s model for expansion, he writes for The Washington Post:

Al-Qaeda wanted to use its new franchises in service of its main priority: attacking Western countries to force them to stop supporting “apostate” Arab regimes, which without the support of Western countries would then be ripe for the taking. This has only truly worked out with its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On the other hand, while the Islamic State does not have an issue with its supporters or grassroots activists attacking Western countries, its main priority is building out its caliphate, which is evident in its famous slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). As a result, it has had a relatively clear agenda and model: fighting locally, instituting limited governance and conducting outreach.

This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.


Yemen clashes raise fears of power vacuum

yemenYemen’s capital, Sana’a, appeared to have fallen to Shia rebels on Tuesday, after militants overran the presidential palace and secured control of most other state institutions following two days of deadly clashes, The Guardian reports:

The fate of the country’s elected president, Abed Mansour Hadi, remained unclear, as the rebels, known as Houthis, rampaged through the city. Hadi was believed to be barricaded in his home in another part of Sana’a, which was being shelled throughout the evening with heavy artillery.

The clashes raise fears of a power vacuum, which could benefit Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), analysts suggest.

In 2013, when a 10-month, UN-sponsored National Dialogue Conference opened in Sana’a, with the promise of a new constitution ahead of fresh elections in 2015, AQAP’s prospects seemed, briefly, to dim, Newsweek reports:

But then, in September, Yemen’s transition to democracy was dramatically derailed when disgruntled Shia Houthi tribesmen from the north of the country first surrounded and then took over the capital. With the Houthis continuing to tighten their grip – Houthi fighters today overran the Presidential palace after fierce fighting in Sana’a – all bets on a 2015 election are now off. Instead, with rumours swirling that the Houthis are covertly supported by Iran, the prospect of an Iraq-style sectarian conflict beckons.

The U.S.-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has seen its influence severely weakened, PBS’s Judy Woodruff reports:

The Shiite rebels have now carved out large swathes of Northern Yemen and extended their reach westward. They have vowed to wipe out the Sunni forces of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which holds sway in much of Central Yemen. AQAP has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks in the West, including the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.

Now, while they’re fighting this front against al Qaeda, they’re also fighting inside Sanaa, she’s told by Abdulwahab Alkebsi of the Center for International Private Enterprise, an affiliate of the National Endowment for Democracy:

Now, at first sight, you say, wow, they’re defeating al-Qaida, they’re doing something good for us, right? They’re defeating them. And so al-Qaida is getting weaker because of that.

But, on the other hand, when we make this battle between them as one between Shia and Sunni, it creates such a recruitment cry for al-Qaida for the Sunni fanatics to join them, those even who are not fanatics who want to protect Sunnis. And they become recruitment fodder for al-Qaida to fight.


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.


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

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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).