- Democracy in the Middle East
According to the "Democracy Index" (published by the Economist, a British journal), the country in the Middle East with the highest Democracy Index score is Israel, with a score of 7.48, corresponding to the status of "flawed democracy"; the only one in the region. The next highest scores of countries of in the region are held by Lebanon (5.82) and Turkey (5.73), classified as "hybrid regimes". Also in the "hybrid regimes" category are the Palestinian territories and Iraq. The remaining countries of the Middle East are categorized as authoritarian regimes, with scores below 2 held by Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Theories are diverse on the subject. Revisionist theories argue that democracy is incompatible with Islamic culture and values, others put forward the development in the conceptualisation of political practices. They argue that the lack of a clear cut difference between religion and the state stifles democracy in the region. On the other hand, "post-colonial" theories (such as those put forth by Edward Said) for the relative absence of liberal democracy in the Middle East are diverse, from the long history of imperial rule by the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France and the contemporary political and military intervention by the United States, all of which have been blamed for preferring authoritarian regimes because this simplifies the business environment, while enriching the governing elite and the companies of the imperial countries. Other explanations include the problem that most of the states in the region are rentier states, which experience the theorized resource curse.
The mainstream advances the innovative approach adopted by political actors in interpreting religious texts which underpins that a gradual political opening is more efficient to reach democracy. As claims about the impact of civil society in the democratization process was put forward by the political economy approaches, the post-positivist interpretation stresses the importance to consider the interplay between culture, identity and discourse in framing Middle East politics.
Accordingly, this article traces the history and assesses the current state and future prospects of democracy, democratic tendencies, and democratic movements in all countries in the broadly-defined Middle East region.
In light of resistance to democracy in much of the Arab world, observers such as Samuel Huntington have advocated the notion of a "clash" between Arab and Western civilizations. This resistance even led to arguments such as "Arab exceptionalism," a phase that prescribes that Arab nations are immune to economic modernization and democratization, or that these concepts form part of the "clash". Huntington attributes to "non-rational" Islamic revivalism and Shi'a fundamentalism the lower likelihood of democratic development in Islamic countries.
Nevertheless, there are a number of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East. A prominent figure in this movement is Saad Eddin Ibrahim who advocates and campaigns for democracy in Egypt and the wider region, working with the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies and serving on the Board of Advisors for the Project on Middle East Democracy.
When asked about his thoughts regarding the current state of democracy in the region he said:People's memories... have become tuned or conditioned to thinking that the problems in the Middle East must be a chronic condition, not that they are only 30 years old, and not realizing that the reason for the current state of the Middle East was first, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and two, the Cold War. The Cold War made the United States and other western democracies look the other way when it came to political oppression and allowed them to deal with tyrants and dictators.
The Middle East Forum, a think tank based in Philadelphia, recently published their table for measurement of democracy within Middle Eastern states. Their contention is that little has changed, post-September 11, 2001, and if anything the "War on Terror" has enabled many regimes to stifle democratic progress. The results showed very little progress from 1999-2005. The report even states that this pattern may be counter-productive to US interests, with Islamism being the only viable opposition to regimes in many Middle Eastern countries. As an additional measure of US attitudes towards the issue of Middle Eastern democratization, on 14 December 2006, the US Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice stated that democracy in the Middle East was “non-negotiable.” The reaction to this statement was positive from some; it was considered a warning by others[weasel words].
Middle East scholar Louise Fawcett notes how the United Nations Development Programme's Arab Human Development Report 2002, drafted by Western-educated Arab intellectuals, is modelled "on universal democratic principles." In addition, Fawcett argues that "Constitutional democracy is viewed not only as an intrinsic good by the putative globalisers who drafted this Report; it is also an instrumental necessity if the region is to stop stagnating and begin to catch up with the rest of the world."
The level of democratic process varies widely from country to country. A few countries, such as Saudi Arabia, do not claim to be democracies; however, most of the larger states claim to be democracies, although this claim is in most cases disputed.
A number of republics embracing Arab Socialism, such as Syria and Egypt, regularly hold elections, but critics assert that these are single-party states or unfair dominant-party systems and not full multi-party systems. Most importantly they do not allow citizens to choose between different candidates for presidency election. The constitution of modern Egypt has always given the president a virtual monopoly over the decision making process, devoting 30 articles (15 percent of the whole constitution) to presidential prerogatives. According to the constitution, the Egyptian president's powers are equivalent to those of the prime minister in parliamentary systems and to the president of the French Fifth Republic. Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, while also partly accepting this ideology, are generally considered more democratic than other states that do so, but the power of institutions in the latter two are limited by the domination of Syria and Israel, respectively.
Absolute monarchy is more common in the Middle East than elsewhere, and even a number of kingdoms with parliaments have been claimed to fall broadly under this category. Saudi Arabia and most other kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula (except Yemen) are usually considered absolute monarchies. When one looks at the Arab states of the Middle East in comparison to countries around the world, the endurance of their authoritarian systems seems extraordinary. Although personalistic regimes have fallen throughout sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the Middle East displays a wealth of similarly corrupt dictatorships that remain in power. Yet long periods of political continuity in the region also contain significant episodes of contestation between rulers and proponents of change.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 resulted in an electoral system (an Islamic Republic with a constitution), but the system has a limited democracy in practice. One of the main problems of Iran's system is the consolidation of too much power in the hands of the Supreme Leader who is elected by Assembly of Experts for life (unless the Assembly of Experts decides to remove him which has never happened). Another main problem is the closed loop in the electoral system, the elected Assembly of Experts elect the Supreme Leader of Iran, who appoints the members of the Guardian Council, who in turn vet the candidates for all elections including the elections for Assembly of Experts. However some elections in Iran, as the election of city councils satisfies free and democratic election criteria to some extent. In other countries, the ideology (usually out of power) has fostered both pro-democratic and anti-democratic sentiments. The Justice and Development Party is a moderate democratic Islamist party that has come to power in traditionally secular Turkey. Its moderate ideology has been compared to Christian Democracy in Europe. The United Iraqi Alliance, the winner of the recent elections in Iraq, is a coalition including many religious parties.
History of political systems
Historically Iranians were ruled by an absolute monarchy for several thousand years, at least since the time of the Achaemenid Empire (550 B.C.E.) until the Constitutional Revolution in the early 20th century. The Constitutional Revolution in 1906 replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy. The constitution went under several revisions during the following decades. During World War II Iran stayed neutral but in 1941 the Allied forces (the USSR and Great Britain) invaded Iran and replaced the Iran's Shah Reza Pahlavi (who was perceived as being pro-German) with his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to protect their access to Iranian oil, and to secure routes to ship western military aid to the Soviet Union. Iran's parliamentary government led by Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq was toppled in a 1953 coup d'état by royalist forces supported and funded by CIA and MI6 after Mohammed Mosaddeq nationalized Iranian oil. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became the preeminent leader in Iran, and instated Fazlollah Zahedi from military as the new Prime Minister. United States considered Shah a close ally and Iran as its main base in the Middle East. Shah also tried to modernize Iran's economy and westernize Iran's culture. These and other policies contributed to alienating nationalists, leftists, and religious groups.
The monarchy was overthrown in the 1979 by the Iranian Revolution, after which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was elected as Iran's Supreme Leader according to the new Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran which was adopted by a referendum in the same year. The constitution was modeled on the 1958 constitution of the French Fifth Republic by the Assembly of Experts for Constitution (who were elected by direct popular vote). The constitution received above 98% support in the 1979 referendum. After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death, the Assembly of Experts (which is made of Islamic scholars elected by direct vote) appointed Ali Khamenei as the new Supreme Leader. The constitution was also amended through a referendum in 1989 with 97% support a few months before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini passed away increasing the powers of Supreme Leader. Iran holds regular national elections by universal suffrage for all citizens (regardless of race, religion, or sex, who are of voting age) for electing the President, members of Parliament, Assembly of Experts, City and Village Councils where political parties support candidates.
Issues with the current political system
The current system of Iran was designed to allow Iranians to decide their future by themselves without being oppressed by authorities, but in practice only allows a limited democracy. One of the main problems of Iran's system is the consolidation of too much power in the hands of the Supreme Leader who is elected by Assembly of Experts for life (unless the Assembly of Experts decides to remove him which has never happened). The powers of Supreme Leader under the constitution is almost unlimited and unrestricted in practice. This combined with the view that he is the representative of God held by some religious groups, being the head of the security and armed forces, and controlling the official state media (the radio and television are restricted to state radio and television) makes him immune from any kind of criticism and unchallengeable. Critics of the system or Supreme Leader are punished severely. Critical newspapers and political parties are closed, social and political activists like writers, journalists, human right activists, university students, union leaders, lawyers, and politicians are jailed for unreasonably long periods for making simple criticism against the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Republic system, Islam and Shia doctrines, the government, and other officials. They have been even threatened by death sentence (though all such verdict in recent years have been dropped in higher courts in recent years) and some have been assassinated by the Ministry of Intelligence and militias in the past (no such case has been reported in recent years).
Another main problem is the closed loop in the electoral system, the elected Assembly of Experts elects the Supreme Leader, so in theory he is elected indirectly by popular vote, but in practice the system does not satisfy the criteria for a free election since the Supreme Leader appoints the members of the Guardian Council who in turn vet the candidates for all elections including the elections for Assembly of Experts. This loop limits the possible candidates to those agreeing with the views held by Supreme Leader and he has the final say over all important issues.
Also the forth unchangeable article of constitution states that all other articles of the constitution and all other laws are void if they violate Islamic rules, and the Guardian Council is given the duty of interpreting the constitution and verifying that all laws passed the parliament are not against Islamic laws. Many articles of constitution about political freedoms and minority rights (e.g. education in mother language for language minorities) have not been applied at all.
Other problems include the issues with the rights of racial and religious minorities, influence and involvement of armed forces specially the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and Basij in political activities, widespread corruption in the ruling elite, problems with security forces like police and militias like Ansar-e Hezbollah, and corruption in Judiciary.
Public opinion of Iranians regarding the current political system
One should note that against all short-comings of the current system as a democracy mentioned above some recent polls in Iran by a number of respected Western polling organizations show that a considerable majority of Iranians support the system including and the religious institutions and trust it about the elections (even the disputed presidential elections in 2009). Some Iranians and political activists dispute the results of these polls arguing that the results of these polls cannot be trusted because people fear to express their real opinion and the limitations on the follow of information allows the state to control the opinion of people living in more traditional parts of the country. Some of these polling organizations have responded to these claims and defended their results as correctly showing the current opinion of Iranians. The polls also show a divide between the population living in large modern cities like Tehran and people living in other more traditional and conservative parts of the country like rural areas and smaller cities.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy represented by a very large number of parties, with universal suffrage for all citizens, regardless of race, religion, or sex, who are of voting age. Freedom House considers Israel to be the only country in the Middle East that is "free" and has an "electoral democracy." 
Palestinians who live in the Israeli-occupied territories are not citizens of Israel and instead are ruled by the Palestinian Authority. New laws targeting immigrants and Israeli-Arabs being debated in the Knesset have been described as "racist" and "fascist." Several thousand Israeli protested against a series of laws proposed by the ring-wing coalition government. A leader of Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the laws are "meant to limit the actions of human rights organisations and others critical of the current Israeli government."
The Palestinian Authority territories experienced presidential and parliament elections with universal suffrage for all citizens, regardless of race, religion, or sex, who are of voting age. The PA which exercises only limited sovereignty, has generally been considered to be more open than most Arab governments, particularly in light of the Hamas' election victory. Factionalism has increased recently, particularly in the Legislature, and has caused severe tension over the issue of democracy. This does, however, indicate that democracy is a salient issue in Palestinian society.
Lebanon traditionally enjoyed a confessional democratic system. Indeed, Lebanon had prided itself on its democratic environment which sought to maintain a semblance of equity within its diverse population, and claims were made that within the country 'democracy and freedom are indispensable ingredient for a stable political system'. The Lebanese constitution that was written in 1926 was based on the French constitution and it secured equality and freedom among all its citizens. A large number of political parties, with very different ideologies, are active in Lebanon, but most of them form political alliances with other groups of similar interests. Even though certain high profile positions in the government and the seats in the parliament are reserved to specified sects, very strong competition between different party and independent candidates are usually expected in elections.
The protests, uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa beginning in 18 December 2010 and continuing through the present brought about the overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. Libya was brought into a 6-month civil war which brought about the end of Gaddafi's 41-year rule. Syria is experiencing an uprising, while Yemen is experiencing clashes. These countries are pending democratization. Many other countries in the region are also calling for democracy and freedom, these include: Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Yemen, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Turkey.
Secularism in the region was pioneered by Kemal Atatürk, who, though he himself had some authoritarian tendencies, helped establish the first modern Middle Eastern democracy in Turkey. Arab Socialism has also fostered secularism, though sometimes in what has been seen as a less democratic context. Secularism is not the same as freedom of religion, and secular governments have at times denied the rights of Islamists and other religious parties. A trend of a more liberal secularism supporting broader freedom of religion has developed recently in Turkey, while some Arab Socialist states have moved away from secularism to some extent, increasingly embracing religion, though many say without really increasing the rights of religious parties.
Measures of Democracy
2010 Democracy Index
According to a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 167 countries were classified according to five broad concepts: free and fair election process, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture. Countries are graded using these five criteria, then placed into four categories and ranked according to the level of democracy present: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime and authoritarian regime. In the Middle East, the majority of states are classed as authoritarian regimes. However, there are exceptions. Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and the Palestinian Territories are rated as hybrid regimes, whereas Israel is classed as a flawed democracy (the same rating as nations such as Italy and France).
The following table lists the Democracy Index rankings of countries in the Middle East and North Africa:
No. Location Index Category Type of government 37 Israel 7.48 Flawed democracy Parliamentary democracy, unicameralism 82 Lebanon 5.82 Hybrid regime Confessionalist Parliamentary republic 89 Turkey 5.73 Hybrid regime Parliamentary republic 93 Palestinian Authority 5.44 Hybrid regime Semi-presidential system, Parliamentary democracy 111 Iraq 4.00 Hybrid regime Parliamentary republic 114 Kuwait 3.88 Authoritarian regime Constitutional monarchy 115 Mauritania 3.86 Authoritarian regime Islamic republic 116 Morocco 3.79 Authoritarian regime Constitutional monarchy 117 Jordan 3.74 Authoritarian regime Constitutional monarchy 122 Bahrain 3.49 Authoritarian regime Constitutional monarchy 125 Algeria 3.44 Authoritarian regime Semi-presidential system, republic 137 Qatar 3.09 Authoritarian regime Constitutional monarchy 138 Egypt Pending Pending Pending, republic 143 Oman 2.86 Authoritarian regime Islamic absolute monarchy 144 Tunisia Pending Pending Republic 146 Yemen 2.64 Authoritarian regime Republic 148 United Arab Emirates 2.52 Authoritarian regime Federalism, Constitutional monarchy 150 Afghanistan 2.48 Authoritarian regime Islamic republic 151 Sudan 2.42 Authoritarian regime Federalism, presidential system, republic 152 Syria 2.31 Authoritarian regime Presidential system, single party, republic 158 Iran 1.94 Authoritarian regime Islamic republic 158 Libya Pending Pending Pending, Republic 160 Saudi Arabia 1.84 Authoritarian regime Islamic absolute monarchy
Freedom House 2011
Similarly, an analysis on the levels of democracy present around the world is conducted every year by Freedom House, an American non-academic political science research institute. This uses different criteria to The Economist above, analysing political rights (PR), civil liberties (CL) and overall regime status. PR and CL are rated from one to seven, with one being most free and seven being least free. Regimes are classed as either 'free, partly free or not free'.
No. Country Political Freedom Civil Liberties Status 1 Israel 1 2 Free 2 Turkey 3 3 Partly Free 3 Lebanon 5 3 Partly Free 4 Kuwait 4 5 Partly Free 5 Iraq 5 6 Not Free 6 Bahrain 6 5 Not Free 7 Egypt 6 5 Not Free 8 Jordan 6 5 Not Free 9 Oman 6 5 Not Free 10 Qatar 6 5 Not Free 11 United Arab Emirates 6 5 Not Free 12 West Bank 6 5 Not Free 13 Yemen 6 5 Not Free 14 Gaza Strip 6 6 Not Free 15 Iran 6 6 Not Free 16 Saudi Arabia 7 6 Not Free 17 Syria 7 6 Not Free
After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, many of the empire's former territories fell under the rule of European countries under League of Nations mandates. Thus, European powers were instrumental in establishing the first independent governments that emerged out of the Ottoman Empire. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for allies in the region and the U.S. has been accused of supporting dictatorships contrary to its stated democratic principles. The 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine was the beginning of a policy of American democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa(MENA).
The 9/11 attacks were in other words, a significant turning point for the U.S's shift from the political rhetoric, to the real cause of the democratisation principle in the region. As a result, the U.S with some allies, have in recent years invaded Afghanistan and Iraq partly for purposes of establishing democratic principles.
Opponents of the act have however, criticised that democracy cannot be imposed from outside. The two countries have since had relatively successful elections, but have also experienced serious security and development problems.
Some believe that democracy can be established "only through force" and the help of the United States. Writers such as Michele Dunne, when writing for the Carnegie Paper concurs with the rhetoric of the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (at that time, referring to peace and terrorism) that the foreign policy position of the US should be to ‘pursue peace as though there were no democratization, and pursue democratization as though there were no peace. In other words, the U.S. government should pursue reform and democratization as policy goals in the first instance without worrying excessively about tradeoffs with other goals.” The U.S. pressure behind the calling of the 2006 Palestinian legislative election backfired, resulting in the democratically sound victory of Hamas, a "huge blow to the advocacy of democracy in the Middle East". Drawing upon the ideas of Middle East scholar Nicola Pratt it can be argued that:
“…the outcome of democratization efforts is [in reality]…contingent upon the degree to which actors’ chosen strategies contribute to either reproducing or challenging the relations of power between civil society and the state.”
However, recent academic critics have characterized intervention in the Middle East as a means towards engendering democracy a failure. The 2011 study Costs of War from Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies concluded that democracy promotion has been flawed from the beginning in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with corruption rampant in both countries as the United States prepares to withdraw many of its combat troops. On a scale of democratization established by Transparency International, Iraq and Afghanistan are two of the worst-ranked countries in the world, surpassed in corruption by only Myanmar and Somalia.
The state, democratization and the Middle East
Typical explanations offered by analysts, in general, point to the "prerequisite failure" of MENA. The civil society here is seen as weak and thus unable to develop effective countervailing power in society which would force the state to be accountable to popular preferences. The weak associational life or civil society in MENA accounts for the governance "deficit" in the region. They drew from the work of Toqueville and more recently Robert Putnam, that independent, nongovernmental associations would help foster participatory form of governance. The lack of horizontal voluntary association and the persistence of authoritarianism in the region. In the same vein, the lack of a market-driven economy undermines the capacity to build individual autonomy and power. The level of equilibrium or disequilibrium in the state-civil society relations is one of the most important indicators of the chances of democratization and the possibility of its evolution. It is a synergistic relation as without the state it may be difficult for civil society to flourish and develop in a productive way. Further on, poverty, inequality and low literacy rates compromise people's commitment to democratic reforms as this is not a priority for them while, at the same time, the countries in the region are geographically remote from the centre of democratization. Culture, and specifically MENA's saturation with Islam is also a powerful argument used to explain the region's failure to catch the third wave.
Although the explanations above are valid in some cases, they fail in many other instances when particular countries or areas suffering from the same poor endowments succeed in their quest for democratization. In order to understand the rarity of the democratic transition in the MENA region it is necessary to take into account a decisive variable when it comes to democratization: the state.
Inspired by Skopcol’s work on revolution, Belin argues that democratic transition can only be carried out when the state's coercive apparatus lacks the will or capacity to crush it. And, as history reveals, authoritarianism has been exceptionally robust in the MENA because the coercive apparatus in many of the states has proven exceptionally able and willing to crush reform initiatives. In short, the strength, coherence, and effectiveness of the state's coercive apparatus discriminate between cases of successful and failed democratization. And here is where the region’s true exceptionalism lies.
Moreover, almost every Arab state has been directly involved in some form of international conflict over the past decades. Evidence from the literature on the effect of wars on domestic political development suggests that conflict involvement has a direct influence on the country's prospects for democratization.
- American democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa
- Freedom in the World
- List of freedom indices
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- Democracy in Yemen
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Democracy in Asia Sovereign
- Burma (Myanmar)
- People's Republic of China
- East Timor (Timor-Leste)
- North Korea
- South Korea
- Saudi Arabia
- Sri Lanka
- United Arab Emirates
States with limited
- Northern Cyprus
- Republic of China (Taiwan)
- South Ossetia
- Christmas Island
- Cocos (Keeling) Islands
- Hong Kong
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