By Selin.M. Bölme

Over the last 40 years, many countries in the world have been democratized. Between 1974 and 1990 the number of democratic governments in the world nearly doubled.


According to Huntington, a third wave of democratization started in Portugal and Spain in the 1970s and swept the developing world during the 1980s and 1990s.

The democratization wave was accelerated with the end of the Cold War.

Despite a declining pace and stagnation in the improvement of political rights, human rights and civil liberties, the actual number of democratic countries has thus increased since the mid-1970s.

Yet this democratization process has not firmly taken hold in the Middle East.

The Middle Eastern experiment with democracy started in the 1970s.

A number of authoritarian leaders of the region inaugurated economic and political reforms, opened up some political space for the opposition and installed multiparty systems with relatively free elections.

However, these limited reforms, which never aimed to change political structure, were revoked after economic crisis turned into popular uprising in many of the Middle Eastern countries throughout the 1980s.

The region witnessed another political liberalization wave for a short while in the early 1990s.

The collapse of the Soviet Union initiated an unprecedented process of democratization in Eastern Europe.

In the early 1990s, following the Gulf War, the United States and other Western powers launched a democracy promotion process in the Middle East and supported “political reforms” through democracy aid.

The democracy promotion of the West, however, did not lead to democracy; actually, it helped restrain its emergence.

The authoritarian leaders of the Middle East used these aids and the reintroduction of elections as a tool to consolidate their power.

Many regimes manipulated elections.

If they were defeated at the ballot box in spite of these manipulations, they cancelled the elections, banned the opposition and arrested the opposition members.

As a result, this short period of “democratization” was followed by the reassertion of authoritarianism.

The silence in the Middle East was broken by the first successful popular Arab revolution, at the end of 2010 in Tunisia.

The Arab Spring created a great hope all around the world for the collapse of authoritarian regimes and the establishment of democratic governments in the Middle East from Tunisia to Egypt.

The fall of longtime leaders and the emergence of new ones – along with the establishment of political parties and holding of free and fair elections – have been the most important gains of the uprisings.

Citizens started to demand rights and accountability from their governments. There were encouraging signs that democratization was taking hold throughout the region.

Unfortunately, this period was not long lived and the optimism of the Arab Spring has faded.

According to Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom in the World report, the Middle East has the worst civil liberties scores of any region.

Today, if one omits Israel, all of the Middle Eastern countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia are ranked not free.

Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco, Libya and Kuwait, on the other hand, are the partly free countries of the region.

The rest – such as Jordon, Algeria, Egypt, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Iraq, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Syria – are categorized as not free.

Egypt, which was the most promising country of the Arab Spring, lost nearly all of its gains from the Tahrir revolution in 2011.

After the oust of Mohammed Morsi – the country’s first democratically elected president – by the military, Egypt’s freedom status was downgraded from partly free to not free.

Three years after the capture and death of the dictator Mu’ammer al-Gaddafi, the political situation in Libya is still fragile.

The weak interim government lost control of much of the country and of the massive oil compounds in the desert to militia fighters.

Libya still struggles to build democratic foundations for governance.

The country does not have a new constitution yet, and political tension and ongoing insecurity cast doubts on Libya’s ability to complete its transition to democracy.

The situation in Syria, which is by far the greatest tragedy of the region, continues to deteriorate.

Syrian protests with demands for freedom and the end to corruption began in March 2011 but turned into a civil war due to the government’s systematic use of extreme violence against peaceful protesters.

All parties to the conflict have violated international humanitarian and human rights laws, and the relentless violence and brutality further intensifies day by day.

The number of killed and injured civilians is increasing, and every day more people are fleeing Syria.

Civilians are facing violence, hunger, disease and other hardships under siege and this situation could endure for years.

Tunisia looks like the last hope for accomplishing a peaceful change after the Arab Spring.

Despite the assassination of two secular leaders in 2013 and the months of deadlock between the ruling Islamist-led coalition and the largely secular opposition, Tunisia has solidified its transition to democracy with the adoption of a new constitution, the most democratic one of its history.

Almost four years after the Arab Spring revolts, profound uncertainties remain.

The recent developments proved that it would not be easy to maintain the democratization process in the region.

to continue in part 2


Selin Bölme received her B.A. in Public Administration department of Hacettepe University. She graduated with an M.A degree on Israel foreign policy from International Relations department of the same university. She received her PhD from International Relations department of Ankara University upon completion of her doctoral thesis titled, US Military Base Policy and Turkey: A Study on Incirlik Air Base. She has been working as a researcher for SETA Foundation since the establishment of SETA.


(The article is a chapter from: Bakis, J. Karakoç, Karakoç, Jülide, Authoritarianism in the Middle East Before and After the Arab Uprisings. Palgrave Macmillan, UK 2015.)






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