Forces Sustaining Authoritarianism in the Arab World, Essay Example
Internal and External Forces
Internally, authoritarian regimes survive mainly because of the existence of a very impenetrable security apparatus that operates on a bottomless fiscal budget. The only time when regime change may take is when the members of the security apparatus are not discontented. However, in the practical sense, it would be the security apparatus’ own peril if a regime change was to take place since the new government may implicate them in violations of human rights.
Diversion of Popular Interests
Co-optoin and diversion of popular interests is another force that sustains authoritarianism in the Arab world. In this case, the state co-opts certain public interests that may otherwise have brought about popular discontent. Progress in the process of achieving public interests such as the rights of women helps divert both external and internal pressure away from the authoritarian regimes.
Countries of the Arab world are unable to achieve democratic goals mainly because of lack of a political community that is receptive to the democratic aspirations of the entire population. This political community should be viewed in the context of the larger social setting at the national level from where patronage emanates. If the political class was receptive to the aspirations of social groups to bring about a transition into democracy, it would be possible for transitional governments to be put in place in order to give democratic leaders to compete for leadership in future democratic institutions.
The nature of the civil society groups in Arab countries, according to Whitehead, is an impediment to the democratization process (65). Whitehead observes that the policies they use to push for democratic transition are normative rather than determinist in nature. There is lack of a robust civil society that is able to build the right amount of social capital in order to put pressure on authoritarian rulers to pave way for the democratization process.
Anderson says that the political regimes that are found in Arab countries are a reflection of the political economies that have existed in these countries for many decades (78). The political culture in the Arab world is treated by western scholars with suspicion owing to the influences that it has gotten from Arab culture.
According to Anderson, the prototypical Arab political system is influenced by two main traditional kinship characteristics: (a) the informal, egalitarian, close-knit and personal character of ethnic organization and (b) the patriarchal authoritarian nature of all imperial governments in the Arab world (82). These characteristics are easy to discern if you are preoccupied with the issue of tribes when analyzing the political cultures of the Arab world.
If one employs political culture to explain the political systems of the Arab world, the findings will be that these systems are characterized by violence. It is interesting to note that such analysis obviously ignore comparisons with other political systems that exist in other parts of the world and more importantly, the impact of external influences on the systems of government that thrive in this region. Instead, relative importance is given to tribal traditions, Islam dictates and Ottoman legacies, all of which have led to violent methods of political conflict resolution.
Apart from being seen to promote violence, kinship ties, for example in Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, are also assigned the responsibility for weakness and sometimes absence of the associational life that have for a long time been considered the foundation of democratic politics.
Authoritarianism in the Arab is often attributed to Islamic beliefs. People from the outside world have strongly held this view, something that angers Arabs: both in the Diaspora and at home. In recent years, the association that is often made between made between Islam and extremist terrorist activities has not made the perceptions of the outside world any better regarding the nature of Arab politics. The more extremism continues to be hinged on religion, the bigger the impediment towards achievement of democratic processes and institutions becomes.
The question of the extent of effect of Islam on domestic politics in Arab countries has been a subject of heated debates. Research in Egypt, notes Anderson, indicates that influence of Islam on the democratization process is not as much as scholars previously thought (88). The investigator reported that matters of religiosity as they apply to a practical understanding of Islam are a neutral factor when the issue of democracy is being discussed. Islam neither hinders democratization, nor furthers it. The factors at play in the democratization debate in most Arab countries are based on ideology, with Islam being merely a contributing factor.
In the eyes of a foreign journalist, comparativist, academic historian, policy analyst and political scientist, an assessment on political culture in the Arab is mostly a negative one. The effect of these partial assessments by foreign powers, contribute to hardening of authoritarianism by Arabian leaders as a way of stamping their authority and territorial integrity.
The influences of western stereotypes concerning the nature of authoritarian governments in the Arab world on relationships between Arabs and the outside world is always there for all people to see. These stereotypes have contributed to the mutual mistrust that Arab countries and their allies have towards the West.
Perceptions about the Arab world by western countries have taken the place of more fundamental issues such as nature of institutional structures, regime constituencies, class relations, population growth rate, government policy biases, among many other things. In this regard, the main concern for Arab leaders is not the inherent advantages of adopting democractic structures but the political implications of doing this. On the international front, this may seem like an endorsement of Western practices, something that conservative Arabs are opposed to.
Islamic practices are part of the historical legacy of the Arab world. Luciani observes that the case for asserting a basic incompatibility between democratic government and Islam is often supported by circumstances whereby almost all non-Arab countries also happen to be non-democratic (131). Luciani sounds unconvincing for failing to give the examples of the non-democratic Islamic governments that he is referring to. All in all, patronage systems have historically continued to be used as a good measure of ensuring that citizens are satisfied with the short-terms benefits of supporting the current authoritarian governments.
The argument that links fiscal matters to the formation of the state has historical roots in all the political processes that culminated in revolution and democratization all over Europe. Attempts by the Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, to buy international consensus through distribution of goods and revenue in exchange for virtually nothing do not require to be democratically legitimated. However, locally, they result in factionalism, as has happened in Iraq, a situation that leads to collapse of transitional democracies and resort to authoritarian rule as incumbents struggle to stamp their authority.
In a world characterized by multiple democratization processes especially after the end of the Cold War, the Arab world stood out as an outstanding exception, together with the complicated case of China. However, at different times, one Arab nation or the other appeared to be on the brink of democratization but none fully underwent a transition into a fully-fledged democracy.
Lack of International Pressure
In almost every region in the world, there are many international diplomats of democracy but in the case of the Arab world things are different. Many Western powers, who have always allowed the setting up of embassies in countries as a sign of foreign political presence, hesitate to do the same thing in the Arab world because of many vested interests.
Today, democratization does not seem appealing to the Arab world especially because of the dynamics of fiscal policies that come with a shift towards democratic institutions. Pratt notes that in both democracies and authoritarian governments, deficit spending is a very common economic practice (241). The same case applies in Arab countries only that here, the necessary democratic structures of ensuring equitable distribution of wealth are missing. This way, , authoritarian governments end up being highly ineffective in matters of stabilizing a country’s fiscal capacity. The best examples of authoritarian governments that have been inefficient in accounting for public finance in times of inflation include Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This issue is under discussion among scholars in order to determine whether this inefficiency is due to contemporary structure or it is due to long-running historical socio-economic structures.
Political, Economic and Social Factors
In the Arab world, democratic methods are not attractive whether they are assessed on a political, economic or social dimension. On a political dimension, they create room for formation of many groups with particularistic agendas relating to liberalism. On an economic dimension, they create constrains on the measures that a government can do bring about democratization. On the social front, democracy, to many Arab leaders, appears as a way of appreciating the practices of the West and abandoning Arabic way of life. In the meantime, since patronage systems seem to work pretty well, these Arab leaders do not see the need to replace them.
Any argument that links the need for democratization in the Arab world to fiscal crises is valid although it would be better if this democratization coincided with political and economic liberalization. Today, such a coincidence does not seem likely. This is largely because there is lack of a managerial and entrepreneurial class that can confidently demand to have a say as well as demand accountability in a new democratic government. The managerial and entrepreneurial class is missing because wealth is concentrated at the top echelons of kinship-based power structures.
The main reason why Arab states have never depended on the bourgeoisie in matters of economic stability is that there exists mistrust between an authoritarian government and the larger population. Authoritarian governments, therefore, find themselves relying on external debt rather than domestic borrowing. The population seems reluctant to commit their money to a government that they have no control of.
The social setting in many Arab countries, notably Libya, Iran and Saudi Arabia is such that the civil society feels helpless about the prospects of campaigning for transition from authoritarian governments that are founded on deeply entrenched patriarchal kinships to democratic ones. The main reason for this is that a “civil society culture”, as Luciani calls it, is lacking in these Arab countries (131). Other factors such as social stratification, absolute poverty, illiteracy, religious segmentation (for example, Iraq) and absolute poverty make it increasingly difficult for the civil society to accumulate enough social capital to bring about a democratic revolution.
Anderson, Lisa. “Democracy in the Arab World a Critique of the Political Culture Approach” The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses, Larbi Sadiki. London: C. Hurst & Co, 2004, 77-92.
Luciani, Giacomo. “The Oil Rent, the Fiscal Crisis of the State and Democratization” Democracy Without Democrats?: The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World, Ghassan Salamé. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.
Pratt, Nicola. Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Arab World, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007.
Whitehead, Lawrence. Democratization: Theory and Experience, Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2002.
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