(photo credit: JPost Staff)
The Middle East elections calendar is unusually crowded this year. Fresh from its first free and fair parliamentary vote, Egypt is slated to hold a presidential poll in May. Libyans, long in the grip of Muammar Gaddafi’s one-man rule, will get to choose a constitutional assembly in June. Tunisia held elections last October and Moroccans voted for parliament a month later after approving a plan to turn the country into a constitutional monarchy.
Long lamented for its “democratic deficit,” the Middle East and North Africa may finally be joining the world of truly competitive elections, free speech and political pluralism. Or not.
Scholars have debated for some time why the region has resisted democracy, pointing to everything from Islam, an abundance of oil and the Arab world’s perpetual conflict with Israel. Now, Eric Chaney, a Harvard economist is offering a novel new theory that encompasses not only the core Arab world but Muslim countries stretching from Morocco to Indonesia.
In short, he traces the problem back to the early Middle Ages when the early Muslims charged out of Mecca to conquer the Middle East and North Africa, bringing with them a political model of military and religious leadership that centuries later remains intact in much of the Arab world.
As a result, Chaney expresses some doubts about whether the experiment with democracy now underway in them Middle East will bring an end to the region’s traditional autocracy.
“On the one hand, the results provide reasons to be cautiously optimistic that the Arab Spring will lead to sustained democratic change [because] they cast doubt on claims that Muslim theology, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Arab culture are systematic obstacles to democracy,” Chaney writes. “On the other hand, they provide sobering evidence that the region’s democratic deficit has deep historical roots.”
His research comes as Egypt’s presidential elections were due to reach a milestone with a deadline for candidates to file on Sunday. While parliamentary elections went smoothly, the presidential vote has been characterized by unexpected twists and turns. The Muslim Brotherhood vowed to stay out of the vote and then reversed itself and announced it was fielding candidate. The front-running Salafist candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, has already been disqualified after it was revealed that his mother held an American passport.
With Egypt’s new constitution yet to be written and the interim military regime insisting it will retain special powers after the transition to civilian rule, no one can say for sure what the powers of the next president will actually be.
In his paper, which was published by the Washington-based Brookings Institution last month, he notes that many Muslim countries have made progress toward democracy, but those countries tend to be on the outer edges of the Muslim world. They adopted the religion through voluntary conversion and either ignored or quickly abandoned the political institutions that were imposed on lands subject to military conquests by the early caliphs and successor regimes.
Chaney describes those institutions as a power-sharing agreement between military and religious leaders, which was incorporated into Islamic law. The development of slave armies starting in the ninth century enabled military rulers to fight wars abroad and maintain political control at home without having to turn to the aristocracy or merchant classes for taxes and recruits as autocrats in Europe were compelled to do, creating the foundations of democratic rule.
Chaney bases his historical analysis on the state of democratic rights in the world prevailing today. The widest democratic deficits occur in the 28 modern-day countries that were wholly or partly under Muslim rule in the year 1100.
These include countries that are Arab and non-Arab, which Chaney asserts disproves that Arab culture is responsible. He dismisses the influence of the Islamic religion as a factor by using data on alcohol consumption as a litmus test for religiosity. Chaney found no correlation between tea-totaling piety and the absence of democracy.
Likewise, he finds no link between the lack of democracy and a country’s involvement in the six-decade long conflict with Israel, which some scholars have identified as the cause for the region’s autocracy.
What he did find is that the democratic-deficit countries showed unusually high levels of government centralization, which he contends backs up his historical thesis. In countries conquered by Arab armies 900 or more years ago, the government’s share of gross domestic product is seven percentage points higher than in areas that were not conquered by Arab armies. Their legal systems are “less hospitable” to private finance and they have fewer trade unions.
Chaney concedes that the Arab world has undergone structural changes since the end of World War II that make it more democracy-friendly than in the past. The grassroots rebellion of the Arab Spring, he said, have no precedent in the region and could portend a move to true democracy, most notably in Tunisia.
But, he warned, the military-religious alliance that thwarted democracy over the centuries is still very much present in countries like Egypt and Yemen. Pledges by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and other groups to play the democratic game will not necessarily be kept, he said.
“Recent history suggests that Islamists are just as likely to establish autocratic rule as other groups in the absence of checks on their power. Popular support for Islamists may undermine democratic efforts if such groups are not checked by other contenders for power,” Chaney said.