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.


Arab culture and neopatriarchy

While Stepan and Robertson, like the other studies mentioned here, disprove the arguments about Islam being incompatible with democracy, their study suffers from a weakness of another cultural explanation.

It is possible to find other examples of “Arab exceptionalism” that blame the Arab culture rather than religion for the democracy deficit.

These studies blame the political culture of the region, including political institutions, processes or citizen attitudes and values for being inimical to the emergence of democratic institutions.

One of the proponents of this approach, Hirsham Sharabi, explained the region’s resistance to democracy with the concept of “neopatriarchy.”

Sharabi argued that the central feature of Arab society is the repressiveness and unquestioned dominance of the father (patriarch) in the family and of the male in relations between men and women.

Thus between ruler and ruled, between father and child, there exist only vertical relations. These relations replicate themselves not only in broader society but also in relations between state and citizen. This structure creates a culture of domination and dependency in social and political life.

This traditional domination (patriarchy) has interacted with modernity in the contemporary Arab world. Arab society is “neither modern nor traditional”. Sharabi called this hybrid structure neopatriarchy, which influences social and political life in the Arab world.

As a result of that, Arab states, regardless of modern institutional building and legislation, have been sustained in distorted modern forms. According to Sharabi, this state “is in many ways no more than a modernized version of the traditional patriarchal sultanate.”

Sharing most of Sharabi’s approach to patrimonialism as the dominant pattern of leadership in Middle Eastern politics for centuries, Bill and Springborg underlined the critical role of associational and institutional groups in the Western political system.

The dominant group structure in the Islamic world has been of an informal group rather than a formal one.

The formation of a viable formal group structure requires a certain level of organization skills, a minimal degree of trust and cooperation, a reservoir of funds for equipment and staffing, and a willingness on the part of political elites to tolerate the existence of such groups.

According to Bill and Springborg, the conditions of organization are seldom all present at once in the Middle Eastern societies.

Anderson sharply criticized Bill and Springborg’s approach. She emphasized that even a family in an Arab society, not the complex collection of families that constitute tribes, meets most conditions of forming a formal group.

She argued that only the fourth condition – political tolerance – is lacking in the Arab world. Anderson also draws attention to the urban and labor migration, which has changed the structure of society and decreased the proportion of patriarchs in general.

Most scholars today cast doubts on culturalist explanations. Fish shares some concerns of explaining polity by family relations; nonetheless, he warned that the possibility of this connection should not be underestimated.

In his view, “individuals who are more accustomed to rigidly hierarchical relations in their personal lives may be less prone to resist such patterns of authority in politics.” Hence, the treatment of women is important in that sense, but only as one of several factors.

In general, cultural explanations treat the culture as a prerequisite to a successfully functioning democracy and believe there is something wrong about the Arab culture. However, the empirical research and data from the Arab world indicate the contrary.

According to the data collected from 20 different surveys carried out in nine Arab countries between 2000 and 2006, popular support for democracy is widespread in the region.

Cross-regional data from the World Values Survey also indicates that support for democracy in the Arab world is as high as or higher than in any other region.

According to Lawrence Rosen, culture is important but this does not indicate that something inherent in Arab culture or Islam prevents the development of democracy.

He argued that institution-building might very well follow a different course in the Arab world than in the West. Rosen warned about the ready-made assumptions that Western constitutional forms will necessarily suit local needs in the Middle East.

The impact of the present

The role of the West: democracy promotion

It is important to note the impact of external powers on the democratizing process all around the world. The European Union (EU) enlargement process, for instance, plays an important role in the democratization of Eastern Europe.

The pressures and incentives of the organization have direct and indirect effects on establishing democracy, not only in the member countries but also in the candidates.

However, external democratizing pressure did not bring democracy to the Middle East in the post– Cold War period. During the Cold War years, the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East were supported by both superpowers, namely Soviet Russia and the United States.

They provided arms, technical and financial support without questioning the type of the regime unless it threatened their interests. In the mid-1980s, the United States imposed a new policy based on supporting democratization to secure pro-American regimes against the threats of increasingly popular radical Islamic movements.

After 9/11 the US administration upheld a policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

At the beginning they mostly concentrated on fostering free and fair elections and reforming state institutions; later the support for civil society, civil rights and human rights would be part of the democratic aid programs.

All these efforts, however, did not create real political change in the Middle East. In democracy promotion the US government has pursued two patterns, one for “friends” of the United States and the other for its “foes”.

The pressure on the “friends” was very limited. These regimes – such as Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco – have initiated reforms, yet of a limited kind and in a controlled manner.

Due to the multiple security and energy priorities of the West, most of the authoritarian regimes never faced real external pressure unless they threatened the West’s vital interests.

As a result, the reforms did not limit the powers of leaders; in many cases reforms helped them consolidate their rule.

In sum, democratization of the region has always been the secondary goal overshadowed by vital security concerns of the United States as well as Europe.

As Carothers pointed out, “When democracy appears to fit in well with U.S. security and economic interests, the United States promotes democracy. Where democracy clashes with other significant interests, it is downplayed or even ignored”.

Similarly, the EU’s democracy promotion prioritized the EU’s strategic and economic interests. European countries mostly neglected a regime’s political oppression at the expense of their strategic interests.

For instance Egypt, despite the regime’s prevalent oppression, received the highest amount of European financial aid maintaining the status quo in the Middle East established by Camp David Treaty of 1979.

Both the individual European countries and the EU awarded the authoritarian regimes with financial aid; nonetheless, they limited their contact with the Islamist political groups who faced the regimes’ most intense harassment.

Hiding behind the pretext that “Islamists are coming,” Middle Eastern regimes have provided very limited space for non-violent Islamic forces to engage in politics.

While allowed to run for elections in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Morocco, Islamist parties have experienced continuous repression by the rulers when they have demonstrated a good performance at any elections.

The EU’s reaction to the regimes’ repression of Islamists has been silence.

The major problem of the Western democracy promotion lies in the prioritization of multiparty elections over other dimensions of democracy, such as civil liberties.

Moreover, Levitsky and Way argue that the external democratizing pressure does not have the same effect on each country; the result depends on “leverage” and “linkage” effects.

If the non-democratic country is vulnerable to pressure from the West (leverage), and there are extensive cross-border ties and flows connecting them (linkage), the pressure will be effective.

Otherwise, the degree of effectiveness of external pressure is limited, as in the Middle East. Levitsky and Way explain how energy resources and security issues shape the democracy promotion agenda of the West and limit autocrats’ vulnerability to external pressure.

Saudi Arabia or Egypt, for example, can easily argue that political liberalization would put at risk either US security interests or Western access to oil.

Exploiting the various security concerns of the West helps authoritarian regimes in the region maintain international support.

After nearly 30 years, the results of the West’s democracy promotion are unimpressive and mostly ineffective.

The expansion of multiparty elections in the Middle East may be the only remarkable result of this long process, yet the elections did not bring democracy; they rather entrenched the authoritarian status quo in most cases.

Elections as a tool of an authoritarian regime

Today, most countries in the Middle East have some form of political parties and regular elections.

In these regimes, however, the existence of multiparty elections do not mean a step toward democratization since they are not seriously contested and political power continues to remain firmly in regime hands.

Regimes permit the opposition movements to contest elections unless they risk the safety of their power. Hence they do not allow free and fair elections.

In most cases, opposition parties are banned or disqualified from electoral competition and opposition leaders are jailed when they become a threat to the regime.

Independent or outside observers are prevented from verifying results, which creates widespread opportunities for vote rigging. Despite their unwillingness to accept the results of democratic elections, the number of authoritarian regimes that adopt multiparty elections is increasing day by day.

From 1975 to 2000, 44 states introduced limited multiparty elections under conditions of continued autocracy. As a consequence of that, authoritarianism with elections has become a modern form of autocracy.

If the elections do not express the voters’ demands, then what purpose do elections serve in these authoritarian regimes? Buehler explained this purpose using the “safety-valve” metaphor.

Elections assist authoritarian regimes in weakening and containing the political opposition while satisfying democratization demands from inside and outside.

In his case study of the elections in Morocco, Buehler delineated how the Moroccan regime and regime elites manipulated electoral rules and formal institutions to undermine the Islamist opposition between 2007 and 2010.

According to him, altering and enlisting formal political institutions (such as political parties, electoral laws and the media) to work in the regime’s favor is the best way to break the opposition. Further, manipulating elections is more useful and less problematic than using brute military force to defuse the opposition.

Elections play a distinct role in determining regime stability by helping rulers not only to quell opposition and control voters but also to manage incumbent elites.

Buehler underlined the need for a “ruling party” in an authoritarian state. In his explanation, a ruling party makes the regime stronger than the rule of a charismatic, willful or ruthless dictator because the party regulates conflicts between elites and prevents their dissatisfaction which may weaken the regime.

The satisfaction of the elites is crucial for the future of the regime. Albertus and Menaldo’s empirical research shows that a democratic transition is more likely if the elite manage to guarantee their interests.

In that sense autocratic elections are designed to establish a regularized method to share power among ruling party politicians. In cases where autocracies do not ban the opposition, the regime allows the elite to organize into independent political parties and to have a place in the legislature.

At the same time, the landslide victories of a regime signal to the elite that they do not have any political future outside the ruling system. If they obey the rules of authoritarian rule, they may get power, jobs and interests that are distributed by incumbents. This system does not only discourage the potential opposition but also consolidates the support of elites for the regime.

The elections can turn into a trap for the opposition groups in an authoritarian regime. First of all, elections provide the regime with information about its supporters and opponents.

This information is very useful not only to control and quell the opposition when necessary but also to screen the supporters and their loyalty.

Furthermore, the past elections and election processes serve the regime by allowing it to arrange the elections according to the ruling party’s mass support and its geographic distribution.

Autocratic legislatures and elections also serve to divide the opposition. Incumbents divide the opposition by giving limited concession to only a small part of it and leaving the rest of the opposition out.

Ellen Lust-Okar’s comparative analysis on the policies of regimes against the opposition after popular uprisings in Jordan and Morocco shows how an authoritarian regime strengthens itself with the divide-and-rule strategy.

Authoritarian elites have the power to determine which opponents may or may not participate in the formal political system. According to Lust-Okar’s classification, this variation yields three types of political environments: undivided-exclusive, undivided-inclusive and divided.

In an undivided environment, authoritarian rule does not divide the opposition; it allows either all of them or none of them to participate in the political process. In the divided environment, in contrast, incumbents allow some political opponents to participate in the political system while excluding others.

According to the results of Lust-Okar’s case study, when incumbent elites do not create division between opposition groups, either by giving access to political participation or by preventing it entirely, opposition elites are more likely to mobilize political unrest.

However, when incumbents effectively divide political opposition into loyalist and radical camps, opponents are less likely to mobilize unrest.

In spite of several arguments for how elections turn into a tool in the hands of authoritarian rulers to sustain the regime, some authors argue that elections can have a destabilizing, even democratizing effect.

Philipp Kuntz and Mark Thompson claimed that in electoral authoritarianism, fraud in the elections has the capacity to spark massive protests.

It may mobilize ordinary citizens, strengthen the opposition, help overcome the fear of collective revolutionary action and turn into a trigger that can break down the regime.

Brownlee also places importance on authoritarian elections. He states that the shift to authoritarianism with multiparty elections does not represent an unwitting step toward full democratization, but neither do manipulated elections automatically protect rulers.

In Brownlee’s view, the autocrat’s elections are a stage in a long political process that may lead either to a durable authoritarianism or to opportunities for democratization.

Despite the fact that the elections in authoritarian regimes are not fair or free, Brownlee points out that these elections provide information about rulers, their critics and the support competing factions have in the wider population.

Elections may certainly be manipulated and they do not bring about significant change, but they tend to reveal the political trends.

to continue in part 6


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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