….Harvard University’s Tarek Masoud asks in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy.
One thing that the Arab Spring and its aftermath have made clear is that we should not expect democracy to come as a result of an intifada that sweeps dictators from power and enables the masses to erect liberal institutions. As the last three years have demonstrated all too well, in no Arab country are autocrats or their militaries so weak as to be rendered ciphers amid fleeting moments of revolutionary enthusiasm. They crack down (as in Syria or Bahrain) or bide their time (as in Egypt), but they never disappear. If democracy is to alight in that part of the world, it will likely be through a process that is more evolutionary than revolutionary, one in which authoritarian elites dictate the pace of reform. As Terry Lynn Karl found in her study of democratization in Latin America, revolutions either produce counterrevolutions or inaugurate one-party states every bit as objectionable as the ones that they replace. Democracy is usually imposed from above.17
One implication of this argument is that the Arab world’s most promising prospects for reform are likely to be those regimes that were strong enough to weather the Arab Spring, but not so strong that they saw no reason to change in response to it. Places such as Morocco, Jordan, and Algeria are usually coded as instances of stasis when it comes to the effects of the Arab Spring on their regimes, but this assessment neglects subtler changes in regime policy that may prefigure gradual openings. In all three countries, constitutional reforms have been enacted or put on the table that would dial back the supremacy of kings or presidents, protect citizens from the arbitrary exercise of police power, and give more voice to oppositions.18 Morocco has arguably gone furthest in this regard. Although it is far from a constitutional monarchy—the king remains commander-in-chief of the armed forces, for example, and human-rights violations continue—it is the only Arab country (aside from Tunisia and, before the coup, Egypt) in which an Islamist political party (the Party of Justice and Development) has been allowed to take control of the government after a free and fair election (in 2011).19
The smart money in the Middle East always bets against seemingly democratic reforms panning out. In the past, the pseudodemocratic institutions that adorned Arab polities were seen as implements of what Diamond called “authoritarian statecraft,” used in combination with periodic repression in order to keep opposition forces busy but at bay.20 And that may indeed be what the reforms in Morocco and its counterparts turn out to be. But it is worth noting that so far the Moroccan government is the only one elected after the Arab Spring that was not compelled to relinquish office at bayonet point or amid mass protests.21 Compared to the rubble of the Arab Spring, Morocco increasingly looks like a democratic success (albeit a modest one at best).
Continuing with the theme of unlikely bright spots, it may also turn out that the Arab Spring’s “empty quarter”—the monarchies of the Persian Gulf—will surprise us with their capacity for reform. At present, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates have been notable mainly for the ways in which they have deployed their oil wealth not just to squelch opposition at home, but also to bolster autocrats and thwart self-styled democrats in places such as Egypt and Libya. As Bernard Lewis once pointed out in these pages, however, monarchy as a regime type may be uniquely favorable to democratic development. According to Lewis, it is mainly in Europe’s former monarchies that “democracy has developed steadily and without interruption over a long period, and where there is every prospect that it will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.”22