Since the fall of the Berlin wall and especially in the last few decades the world has witnessed a flurry of democratisation; Latin America, Southern Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa all became or worked towards becoming electoral democracies. In contrast to this revolutionary political and social change; political scientists have been left puzzled over the incredible resilience of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East region to this political change. Authoritarian regimes are neither democratic, nor do they follow the totalitarian model; rather this regime mainly depends on limiting political participation and by refuting civil society of its representation in the form of unions, associations and protests ( Jebnoun 2014). Scholars interested in this area have developed a lot of theories that attempts to explain this resilience and a lot of work is centred around the idea that the Middle East lacks certain cultural and political fundamentals and characteristics that are needed for the process of democratisation and therefore conclude that middle east is prone to authoritarianism hence the persistence to political change. However other scholars argue that it is the power hungry autocratic leaders themselves that prevent this change not the people or the culture. Using the different theories and perspectives I will aim to examine the extent to which the Middle East is prone to authoritarianism. I will begin by exploring the cultural & political characteristics and perquisites of countries in the Middle East (using some examples) that may make the region more prone to authoritarianism. I will then examine other barriers to democracy such as the Autocratic leaders, and other internal & external factors that may contribute to the resistance to political change. Finally by evaluating all the different theories, ideologies and perspectives I will end by giving an overview of the discussed and provide a conclusion on the extent to which the Middle East is prone to authoritarianism?
To what extent is the Middle East prone to authoritarianism?
The Role Religion and Culture & Authoritarianism
Daniel Lerner and Martin Lipsit; the two main pioneers of the modernisation theory considered the western society as modern and democratic and a successful example for other nations to follow. They directly link modernisation to democratisation and argue that those countries that modernise will also ultimately democratise (Lerner 1958). A lot of countries followed the same route of modernisation in the 1950’s; at the same time the middle east was also following this trend however their form of modernisation did not lead to democratisation. Scholars have argued that culture is one of the main reasons that prevented the transition to democratisation making the Middle East prone to authoritarianism.
Islam plays a key role in the Arab society, and is a major player dictating Arab culture, society and identity. The Arab people give a lot of importance to Islam, they see it as way of life, according to some scholars this immense significance for Islam is one of the main reasons for the resilience of authoritarian regimes. Herb (2005) argues that there is a direct link between the Muslim population and the regime type. He claims that countries with a high Muslim population will most probably have an autocratic regime of governance. Donald Smith (1970) argues Islamic way of governance such as absolute blind obedience to one leader has relinquished critical rational on an individual level, rather they blindly accept what they are told. He further states that these characteristics are also found in authoritarian regimes; therefore he believes that the strong conviction in faith has inclined the Arab people to accept strong, powerful monopolist forms of governments. These arguments have also been supported by several different scholars for example Savory (1989) puts forward the argument that Muslim governance solely practices the Islamic law, which is indisputable and does not change as it is God given therefore according to him this system is static and is not compatible with the pillars of modernisation. This could be a reason as to why that Arab world which predominantly Muslim could pass through the process of modernisation and hence could not democratise. One of the key principles of Islamic law is full power to one leader, it also emphasises on total obedience to that leader, Lewis (1988) argues that this means that civilians have no right to question, they have no right protest and their opinions do not matter, this leads to passive blind obedience to one leader, so there in no change in the system this could be another reason for the persistence of continuous authoritarian rule in the middle east.
The same trend can be seen outside of the Middle East, Savory (1989) in his work on authoritarian characteristics in the Islamic law, presents the example of Pakistan. After the British left India, the Muslims wanted a separate country for themselves so the state of Pakistan was formed; Savory argues the Constitution of Pakistan was based on the Islamic rule of law which was all laws should be based on the Islamic sharia prescribed by God, and no other law shall be passed which contradicts the prescribed law. According to Savory this is totally against the main principle of democracy which is to promote sovereignty of the people, whilst the Islamic Law promotes the laws of God, therefore true democracy cannot be accomplished. He is right to an extent, Pakistan has not witnessed true democracy since its formation with many coups, and powerful strong leaders, in fact it was only in 2013 that the first transition of power through a democratic process took place; previously all the governments were stopped before completing their full term by either the military or because of the assassinations of the leaders. Therefore this further supports the idea that democracy is not compatible with the Islamic law hence the authoritarian rule in the Middle East.
In counter and contrast to the above arguments there are strong opinions and consensus on the fact that strong Islamic attachments does not undermine or deject support for democracy, there are many examples of Islamic parties taking part in elections. (Pipes 1981) disagrees with Lewis’s opinions that Islam is barrier to democratisation, According to Pipes if Muslims live up to true sharia, they would be actively involved in making the government and the leaders accountable if they govern against sharia, as it is the duty of every Muslim to invite and to promote what is good and forbid what is wrong. Pipes believes that if every Muslim follows this rule they will be inclined to actively participate in government, to make them accountable and question them. However according to Pipes the Autocratic leaders made it hard for people to protest, they would punish those that went against the state so most people do not want to question due to the fear of the outcome that they would face so they accepted the status quo. Therefore it can be argued that Islam is not a barrier to democracy, therefore they must be other explanations as to why the Middle East is prone to authoritarianism.
Another reason as to why the Middle East has remained autocratic could be due to fact that there is a huge clash between western societies’ norms and values and Arab society’s norms and values, therefore western democracy can never be achieved. Arab societies are made from traditional small groups of tribal nomadic loyalties, close knit kinships and tribal association have been following the same practices for hundreds of years, whilst democracies requires change.
The effects of “Rent” Civil Society & Authoritarianism
Based on the arguments above, it is fair to assume that countries in the Middle East are prone to authoritarianism to a certain extent; Countries with Autocratic regimes have many barriers in place such as culture, religion, education, etc. that prevent it from progressing towards electoral democracies, at the same time the power hungry leaders of the Autocratic, oligarchy, personalistic and sultanistic regimes have suppressed the voices of civil society, and anyone who managed to raise their voice vanishes, they have put into place mechanisms such as divide and rule, the full control of the army, police, media, etc. to allow the continuation of their monopoly, lust for power and control over their people. Nevertheless some of these autocratic countries claim to be democratic and have democratic systems in place for example the constitution, subsidies for food and energy, but this only to keep the people passive so they don’t question and to the show the world that they favour democratic values.
On the other hand it is believed that western democracy can never be accomplished in the Middle East, there have been many attempts to achieve and to promote democracy but it has achieved nothing but chaos, destruction, civil war, deaths and has created the biggest refugee crises since WW2, Its time the west realised the Middle east harbours complex Arab societies which is not easy. The direct continuous interference by the west to support rebel groups to topple the governments has only led to disastrous outcomes, Iraq being a prime example and now countries such as Syria, Egypt and Libya are a mess and backwardness. If one was to ask the local people now most of them would choose to live under those autocratic regimes than under the anarchy that they have to bear now not because they like or support them but simply due to the fact the western form of governance just doesn’t work in the Arab peninsula. Although it is too late, it is time that the west realise that they need to stop imposing what they perceive to be correct, as they have tried and failed and their attempts have only lead to disorder and devastation.
However what is the relevance of this question anymore when one can clearly witness the demise of true democratic values in the western world as well as the notion of “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. Abraham Lincoln (1964)
Secular pluralistic countries are moving towards secular neutralist or secular non-religious patterns and European politics are swinging to the Right (nationalist). Donald Trump becoming the president of the USA, Brexist, Right wing nationalist parties gaining support across Europe including power in Austria, and the pugnacious strong man Erdogan, the “supreme “leader Ali Khamenei of so called democratic fold all indicate that the pluralist form of democracy is failing. The world is moving towards a semi-autocratic form of democracy where the people in power are using democracy as a tool to promote personal power, interests and ideologies no longer representing the “people”. I see no difference between this shift and the autocratic regimes of the Middle East.