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.



What are the reasons behind it?

There is no magical answer that explains the democratic deficit of the region. A number of internal and external factors account for authoritarianism in the Middle East, though there is little consensus regarding them.

In the 1960s and 1970s much of the literature was based on socioeconomic explanations, which emphasize the relations between high levels of economic development and democracy.

Lipset argued that this relation influenced many of the analyses during this time. Economic explanations are still espoused by many scholars, yet the focus shifted away from development to the source of revenues and the class structure.

Other, more enduring explanations have been culture and religion. The researchers regarded the region as exceptionally culturally resistant to democratization; in this sense they have used Arab culture and Islam to explain the authoritarianism in the Middle East.

Even though “the Middle East exceptionalism” theory has been highly criticized because of its orientalist perspective in recent years, it is considered the most widespread explanation.

The sociocultural division hypothesis and the patriarchy hypothesis, which use the social structure of the society as an explanatory device, have also been debated. Particularly after the 1990s much of the work has emphasized the role of elections in sustaining authoritarian regimes.

In recent years the capacity, the will and the status of the military as a state’s coercive apparatus to suppress any democratic initiative has also attracted attention in the literature.

History may be the most neglected factor in the studies in this field. Historical explanations have mainly focused on previous experiences of the countries with democratization or the influence of Islam and Arab culture but pay little attention to the impact of the colonial past.

Emphasis on the internal dynamics glosses over the critical role of the great powers on authoritarianism and democracy in the Middle East, not only during the colonial period but also today.

In authoritarianism literature, some studies stress the effects of other factors such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the rate of literacy, the status of women and so forth on the prevalence of authoritarian rules throughout the region.

Although some of these studies and their easily refutable arguments fail to explain the reasons for authoritarianism in the region, a group of theories gives insight into how authoritarian regimes have been able to survive for so long.

The impact of the past

Institutional inheritance

In order to understand the state structure of the Middle East we should shed a light on the history of the region. The origins and persistence of authoritarian rule in the region can be traced to the colonial period.

All of the countries of the modern Middle East and North Africa, except for Iran, Morocco and the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula, were part of the Ottoman Empire, and most of them – with the exception of Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Yemen and Turkey – have been ruled by European powers.

 As Anderson pointed out, the state formation and bureaucratic development of the Middle East began in the period of modernization under the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman administrative development, however, was suspended when the Europeans dismantled the empire after World War I.

In some cases, such as those in Egypt and Tunisia, Europeans maintained the state formation process. In much of the rest, European rulers destroyed the Ottoman bureaucratic, military and financial establishment and replaced it with their own.

This discontinuity created an unstable administration deprived of legitimacy.

Besides that, European colonizers disturbed the political power according to their interest and blocked the emergence of rival groups by dividing the society, supporting allied native rulers and keeping civil society weak.

Although there were some democratization attempts during the British and French mandates, they were more cosmetic reforms to cover up foreign domination than decisive efforts toward the creation of democratic states.

In Tunisia, South Yemen and Algeria for example, France and Britain established pseudo parliamentary bodies, but these bodies denied local elites a political voice.

It was quite the same in the parliaments of Iraq, Jordon and Syria. Consequently, when a large number of Middle Eastern countries gained independence after World War II, the new states inherited weak institutions, weak civil societies and a limited substantive power structure.

According to Michele Penner Angrist, the nature of nascent local party systems upon the departure of European powers significantly affected the type of political regimes that eventually emerged after Middle Eastern states gained their independence.

In countries such as Tunisia, South Yemen and Algeria, political elites were united under a single party to mobilize the masses in widespread protests against imperial powers.

In countries with a single dominant party at the time of independence, a one-party state developed. Angrist argues that single, preponderant parties did not only render authoritarianism inevitable but also enabled undemocratic elites to build authoritarian regimes quickly and effectively because they faced no rival actors.

Although there was some form of competitive politics in Iraq, Jordon, Egypt and Syria during the independence, it gradually gave a way to an authoritarian rule.

As Angrist suggested, if key actors conclude that a given party system configuration threatens their status and interests (gained or maintained under the European domination), they are likely to defect from democratic norms and support antidemocratic actors, institutions and initiatives.

Even though other studies argue the positive effects of a British colonial heritage, they cannot provide any example from the Middle East or Africa.

Myron Weiner in a well-known article claimed that British colonial administration had a powerful influence on the creation of democratic systems in the Third World. However, only six countries meet Weiner’s condition; as Huntington emphasized, a much larger number of former British colonies have not sustained democracy.

In his empiric research Fish also tested this argument and held that the British colonial heritage that left the “Westminster model of parliamentarism” behind does not necessarily provide a significant advantage for any country in democratization.

It also means that former colonies of other European powers are not more vulnerable to authoritarianism.

Eric Chaney is another scholar who believes that the reason behind authoritarianism of the Middle East is hidden in the history, but he dates it back before the European domination.

According to him the democratic deficit of the region is more a product of its unique political equilibrium, which was created during the Arab conquest, than of its cultural, ethnic or religious characteristics.

In his article Chaney focused on the countries conquered by Arab armies during the period of Islamic expansion before 1100 CE . He claimed that the “Arab democratic deficit” is a product of the long legacy of the control structures developed in the early Islamic world.

According to his hypothesis, regions conquered by Arabs enjoyed unusually autocratic political institutions as a result of their propensity to adopt slave armies. The widespread use of slave armies allowed rulers to undermine the power bases of local elites, leading to their destruction.

As political power became increasingly concentrated in the hands of military leaders backed by slave armies, religious leaders emerged as the only check on the sovereign’s power.

The alliance between the military and religious leaders did not produce democratic institutions, since they worked together to develop and perpetuate a “classical” institutional equilibrium.

This political equilibrium persisted in many areas into the 19th century and has left a legacy of both weak institutions and weak civil society.

Over the last century, European colonizers and native rulers have preserved the historical political structure.

Chaney’s hypothesis provides a different historical insight; however, as Akerlof pointed out, even if we accepted Chaney’s hypothesis, how can we neglect the existence of powers of new groups, such as in Middle Eastern politics, and their impact on today’s regime structure?

From the Arab conquest to today, Middle Eastern countries have been occupied many times. Without any doubt the influence of most recent European occupations on the institutionalization of these countries is greater than that of the past.

Moreover, we can find these kinds of power alliances in European history as well, though they did not prevent the emergence and maintenance of democracy in Europe.

to continue in part 4


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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