Social Structural Limitations for Democratization in
the Arab World
Political Studies and Public Administration
American University of
prepared for the Arab network for the study of
for Democratization in the Arab World
This article discusses the nature of the process of political liberalization that
has been taking place in several Arab countries in the last two decades. It argues that this
limited, controlled, slow, and divisive process is but a reflection of the crisis of authoritarian
structures and regimes. To analyze the current attempts at liberalization and their prospects, this
paper employs a socio-historical approach that traces the modern historical evolution of the social
structure. It investigates the reasons as to why there has been a lack of accumulation of democratic
experiences in the Arab World, with many periodic interruptions and setbacks. In seeking to answer
this question, the paper probes the importance of several factors including the state, social
structure, civil society and social class and forces. It argues that the important long-term
structural effect of these factors supersedes any temporary arrangements and policies.
Academic and policy interests in liberalization and
democratization processes in the Arab world have recently increased. In the aftermath of the
second Gulf war, the scholarly studies focused on the potentiality of such processes with some
optimistic speculations. Since the mid 1980s, nine of the twenty Arab states have experienced
some type of political liberalization of one kind or another. In the first decade of the 21st
century, however, one can describe the record as commingled with some countries continuing to
experiment albeit reluctantly with their political liberalization, while others have put the process
on hold, and even reversed it. While scholars have been looking at the socio-structural limitations
of democratization in the short term, a more in-depth analysis of the long-term
structural changes and transformations that have affected these societies in the last few decades is
This article seeks to apply such an
approach with a focus on the nature and evolution of social structure, civil society, state, and
social class as four major factors. It argues that the changes that are taking place in many Arab
countries are not necessarily indicators of democratization. Rather they indicate that authoritarian
regimes are suffering from an accretion of their hegemony crises, which may be a necessary cause for
democratic transformation but it is not, in itself, a sufficient cause. However, it is precisely
because of these crises and the socio-structural changes that many scholars, both Arab and Western,
have raised their hopes for democratization in the Arab World. Hopes are insufficient for
democratic transformation without the social and political forces that can carry out such a task.
Thus, democracy without democrats in the Arab world has led to polarized societies between two
undemocratic choices. The popular Islamic alternatives and the authoritarian states are violently
facing each other as the clear cases of Algeria and Egypt and the tacit cases of many other Arab
countries are demonstrating including the controversial case of Iraq, a country experimenting with
democracy under occupation and a divided society.
Democracy is a
historical process for a full-fledged system that has evolved gradually over two centuries.
Political liberalization is the extension of some freedom rights and the introduction of some
institutions to enable people to practice these rights. Democracy is about empowering people to
participate and affect the decision-making processes while liberalization provides the voice.
Robert Dahl, in his book Polyarchy: Participation and
Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), gives eight minimum requirements for a country
to be classified as a polyarchy, which is the term for the approximation of a system of liberal
democracy. These are:
1) freedom to form and join
2) freedom of expression
3) the right to vote
for public office
5) the right of political leaders to compete for
6) alternative sources of information
7) free and fair
8) Institutions for making government policy.
From the above, it is clear that the focus is on a specific conceptual definition of
democracy, a widely used term and a practical one, which has developed over a very long time to
emerge as “political democracy” or, better yet, “liberal democracy”. Thus, our discussion of the
state of democracy in the Arab world will centre on the components of such a definition. These
1) Sovereignty of the people.
2) Government based upon
consent of the governed and the alternation of power.
3) Constitutional limits on government
including separation of powers.
4) Freedom rights and free media and access to
5) Free and fair elections.
6) Majority rule and protection of
7) Equality before the law and due process of law.
economic, and political pluralism including an independent civil society.
9) Values of
tolerance, pragmatism, co-operation, and compromise.
10) Guarantee of basic human
In order for democracy to work, citizens
must not only participate and exercise their rights, but they must also observe certain principles
and rules of democratic conduct.
Every citizen must respect the rights of
his or her fellow citizens, and their dignity as human beings. People should question the
decisions of the government, but not reject the government’s authority.
There has been a gradual trend toward accepting a more
expansive conceptualization of political democracy. The debate over how to go beyond narrow,
procedural conceptualizations has led scholars to pay more attention to a broader set of
institutions and factors than those simply associated with free elections. These include a coherent
state, effective and democratic accountability and rule of law, the role of the civil society and
NGOs, and civilian control over the military.
another level, democracy is also defined as a form of decision-making or a mode of government in
which the people participate in formulating public policy, and the state acts responsibly and is
held accountable for its decisions and actions. In the recent literature (especially from UNDP and
the World Bank), this is referred to as good governance or accountable governance. It is strongly
linked to development, whether sustainable human development or comprehensive development.
Approaches to liberalization
and democratization in the Arab world
In the study of democracy and democratization as a process generally, and the
limited democratic experiences in the Arab world particularly, scholars have differed in their
adoption of contending approaches.
To start with, many have resorted to
the political culture approach. Their explanations for the lack of democratization in the Arab
world ranged from a reductionist stereotyping about the effect of the Arab authoritarian mind , to a
more in-depth analysis of patrimonialism and patriarchy , to a general reductionist approach
focusing on Islam as an impediment to democracy. The argument that cultural norms
substantially condition state-society relations has been prominent in political science since the
early 1960s. The contention that political culture is an inherent obstacle to democratization has
focused on Islam and primordialism as key factors.
Although one agrees with Hudson that “[S]ome comparative understanding of political
culture is necessary to save us from egregious ethnocentrism,” it is still necessary to
emphasize that political culture analysis as currently done is “unusually susceptible to distortion
and bias. If we are not careful to specify its contexts and limits, we not only risk analytical
confusion, we set the stage for sloppy, self-indulgent, or even damaging prescription.” The
political culture approach is strongly associated with orientalism, and is essentially ahistorical
with its focus on the different static inner qualities of the West and the East. Iliya Harik
presents a more sophisticated critical analysis of political culture as he emphasizes the dual role
of Islam. For Harik, in Islam “one finds the idea of individual integrity juxtaposed with that of
integral membership in the community (al-Jamaa’a), a dualism that has served those who preferred a
strong civil society as well as those who wanted a strong and authoritarian form of
On the other hand, Harik portrays the practiced Arab nationalism, which
constituted the other main ideological tributary of modern Arab culture, as anti-democratic.
Other major work that questioned the presumed
exceptionalism of the Arab and Islamic world is Ghassan Salame’s edited book, Democracy without
Democrats: The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World. One of the major objectives of this work was
to show that: “Beneath the surface of continuity, societies have changed greatly during the past two
or three decades and while leaders may remain in power, the nature of their power has been altered
by incessant adjustments both to domestic, regional and international constraints.”
Another approach that for different reasons reaches a
similar conclusion about the limited prospects for democracy in the Arab world, or other peripheral
countries, is the radical historical dependency perspective. The different historical conditions of
central and peripheral capitalism and the nature of the independent central and the dependent
peripheral bourgeoisie explain the advancement of bourgeois democracy in Europe and its failure in
the peripheral areas. However, the examination of the historical evolution of the social structure
goes back to pre-capitalist social formations, as far as early Islamic empires. This should
not mean that this approach is concerned with the past only. Indeed, the focus on the evolution of
class structure, state formation, colonialism and imperialism, ideological currents and political
forces is comprehensive and up to date. Nevertheless, one can still observe the overemphasis on
external factors as well as the tendency to generalize at the expense of neglecting the complicated
different class, state, and other socio-cultural forces.
Although they do not constitute a developed approach, there are certain apologetic
justifications for the lack of democracy in the Arab world that are worth mentioning here. These
Islamist, Arab nationalist, Statist and Traditionalist ideological views have affected the current
Arab political forces and Arab political discourse. Essentially, these different arguments share one
common objective, and that is to reject democratic transformation on the ground that change should
be introduced by the region at its own pace and according to its own systems of values, priorities,
culture and ideology.
of the failure to transition to democracy in the Arab world focuses on structural aspects of
economic development and their impact on state-society relations in the region.
A large body of literature also attributes authoritarianism to the nature of the
state, the social structure including civil society as well as the class structure of Arab society.
The most widely cited "irregularity" in this class structure is the weak role of an independent
bourgeoisie of the kind that brought about political liberalization in Europe. Some have attributed
this weakness of the Arab urban national bourgeoisie to European economic and political colonization
and influence in the region. This peripheral class structure precipitated the rise of highly
interventionist states in the Arab world (with the exception of Lebanon). Land reform and
nationalization under military regimes in the decades of the 1950s, 1960s and part of the1970s in
many Arab countries, further weakened the class position of the national bourgeoisie. A new
"bureau-technocratic elite" or "state bourgeoisie" came to dominate political activity. This
bourgeoisie came to achieve an inordinate importance as a social base of state power and occupy a
strategic field in the economy and politics of their countries."
The socio-structural limitations such as deformed social classes, a weak and
dependent bourgeoisie, and the persistence of traditional affiliations like the family, tribe, sect,
clan, and other forms or bonds of Asabiyya, all contribute to a conception of authority and state
that is distinct from the above-mentioned western concept. In addition, the rentier economies with
the weak taxation policies also distort not only the concept of the state but also state relations
with civil society, with important implications for democracy. The class structure and deep
involvement of the state in economic affairs have inhibited the evolution of participatory political
institutions in the Arab world. Outside of the Arab World, however, this state of affairs did not
last. Beginning with the debt crisis that hit the developing world in the early 1980s, economic
stagnation eroded the ability of Third World statist regimes to maintain the continued support of
elite coalitions and/or key sectors of the population at large. It forced them to liberalize their
economies as a means of attracting foreign investment and debt relief loans from the international
community. This also led to a wave of democratization since the mid 1980s in countries in Latin
America, Asia, and some African countries. However, this wave stopped at the door of the Arab World,
raising the question of Arab exceptionalism.
Arab World Exceptionalism
The main characteristic, which has made some consider the Arab world
exceptional, is due to the region’s continued resistance to democratic transformation. Arab states
share the elements of the absence of the principle of alteration of power, lack of political
participation, the hegemony of the state as authoritarian machinery, disrespect of human and
minority rights. In spite of some of the political liberalization that has taken limited and
controlled character in some Arab countries since the late 1980s, the intensity of political and
social polarization increased, threatening these states with civil wars and social disintegration,
especially with the increase growth of extreme violent and intolerant tendencies. This limited
political opening is not more than an attempt to manage the crisis by the existing regimes and it is
revocable as the phenomena of personification of authority, weak democratic and civic culture, and
weak social and capable forces to support the democratic process. Therefore, lack of democracy
becomes an essential obstacle to the development of the Arab world, producing irrational policies
and deficiencies in the allocation of resources.
There is a special characteristic to
the woman issue in the Arab world. In addition, to the general socio-economic factors that hinder
the integration of women in society and their active participation in development, there are special
social and cultural factors relevant to the dominant traditional social structure in the Arab world,
which enhances extreme male chauvinism and increases the differences between men and women
marginalizing the latter’s role. A lot must be done to abrogate all forms of discrimination against
women, legally and practically, especially as the principle of equality between men and women does
not contradict the Arab values. This principle of equality is one of the important bases of
democratization and development.
Therefore, in the coming section I will
survey the structural limitations to democratization in the Arab World through five broad
1) State formation; 2) Social structure; 3) Civil society;
4) Social classes; and 5) External factors
The state as a
political concept has been developing throughout modern history since Machiavelli in the 16th
century. The State consists of formal institutions such as government, parliament, judiciary, army,
police and other public agencies and institutions designed to organize the political and social life
of a community. This is exercised through the sovereignty of the state over its territories and its
populations residing in the defined territories. In a way, the state is an entity outside and above
civil society. The moral personality of the state has the authority to make, change, and enforce
law. It also has monopoly over the legitimate use of force as Max Weber put it.
The state is a modern concept that evolved in Europe. It entails respect for rule of
law, as well as a separation of powers and an independent judiciary.
Organizationally, the state is associated with unity, centralization and
decentralization, and more importantly functional differentiation, identified in Weberian discourse
as legal-rational type authority with emphasis on modern bureaucracy and public administration.
Economically, the modern state has generally accompanied the development of capitalism.
The strength of the state is highly associated with political legitimacy, political
responsibility, stability and democracy. In other words, the stronger the consent of the people, the
stronger the legitimacy of the state and the more stable and democratic it is.
In the Arab world, as well as in many other peripheral regions and ex-colonies, the
state may lack these elements of strength, although they may resemble characteristics of a hard and
fierce state. As Ayubi puts it, these are states that “heavily rely on administrative means
and instruments as well as coercion and raw force.”
Moreover, the lack
of continuity, weak institutions, the lack of agreement on the political rules of the game, the lack
of respect for essential human rights and the lack of democracy, all contribute to a lack of
political legitimacy and responsibility and thus a lack of stability and a weaker state, despite the
predominance of authoritarian, coercive and violent institutions.
discussing the role of the state in the Arab world, I will use three predominant models of the state
in relation to the social structure in order to explain the different characteristics. The objective
is to reduce the level of generalization of the concept, nature and role of the Arab state. These
three models are the rentier state model, the national statist model, and the liberal model.
II. The Social
Hazem Beblawi defines the rentier state as a state in which large amounts of rent
accrue directly to the government from foreign actors and "only a few are engaged in the generation
of this wealth, the majority being involved only in the distribution or utilization of it."
The oil producing countries are rentier states par excellance. Not only are
citizens not obliged to make a substantial financial contribution to the state through taxation, but
also most are dependent, either directly or indirectly, on government expenditure. The wealth of
citizens is primarily derived not from their own productive activity, but from the state. Although
only in the above-mentioned "petrocracies" is the preponderance of government revenue derived from
oil, petroleum exports are a significant source of foreign exchange earnings in Egypt, Algeria and
Oil rents are "recycled" to poorer Arab countries, such as Egypt and
Jordan, through remittances from workers living in the Gulf, generating a similar political dynamic.
Unlike oil revenue, however, worker remittances do not accrue directly to the state, but flow into
the private sector. Like any other private sector financial flow, the state can tax this money, but
this would be expected to generate the same demands for accountability as any other form of direct
taxation. According to the logic of rentier state theory, oil remittances should not inhibit
democratization. On the contrary, remittances should empower citizens vis-a-vis the state.
number of scholars have similarly argued that democratization in the Arab world has been impeded by
infusion of "strategic rent" from foreign powers, in the form of economic and military aid, debt
write-offs, low conditionality loans, etc.
Oil-rentier countries share the following commonalities:
• Dependence of their economies on the revenues of extracted crude oil that
are redistributed internally in the form of rents to the various political and social levels.
• Monarchical character of the political systems of these countries, and by
a dominant tribal structure in society.
• Abundance of wealth, lack
of population, heavy dependence on foreign labor, and full integration in the capitalist system with
strong political and economic dependency.
very inaccurate to use the term “development” to describe the economic growth pattern that these
countries have followed. Their economies are not only unproductive and rentier but exclusively
dependent on one basic commodity, namely crude oil. Their social structures are still undeveloped
despite the large fortunes, which make the average income in them relatively higher than in other
developing countries. The pattern of consumption in these countries is characterized by the
inflation of the volume of military spending, which makes them one of the most important weaponry
markets in the world.
Rentier states are
characterized by consummatory luxury spending, especially in real estate projects. Industrial and
agricultural projects, on the other hand, are subject to various distortions because of the surplus
in oil revenues, which allows for state intervention and subsidized support.
In addition, to the above, in recent years, especially
after the Gulf War, the continuous drop in oil prices below the level of 1973, produced a new
reality in these oil-rich countries. The international economic order has adjusted to the higher
prices of oil and gradually drained the region from its surplus through the channeling of
petro-dollars to serve the economies of the center. Oil has therefore deepened dependency instead of
serving as a means to liberate these economies and develop them. For political reasons as well as
strategic positions, the region became a primary market for the purchase of weapons, thus
transforming these countries into indebted nations. As a result, one can conclude that the countries
following the oil rentier pattern did not experience real development in the meaning we referred to
at the beginning.
The Nationalist Statist
This model contains a group
of countries that vary in their levels of development, but share independent developmental
approaches, national liberation, and socio-economic state intervention theories. This model is the
only one among the three models that can be described as a developmental state model, especially in
reference to the policies in the period of 1950s-1970s and in accordance with the general
developmental model followed by many third world countries in the same period. The model can be
described in the following manner:
• The State plays a direct role in
commanding the economy including the productive processes, while playing a fundamental role in
providing public services including health, education, water and electricity.
• An attempt to diversify economic activities and to create a balance
between the various economic sectors with an emphasis on the priority of industrialization,
agricultural reforms, nationalization of foreign companies, and the direct supervision of the state
on basic productive activities.
• The implementation of inflexible
and protective monetary and trade policies through state mechanisms including protective tariffs,
state monopoly over external trade, and a system of subsidies to the basic commodities with
rationing cards. This also includes an official pricing of the national currency, irrespective of
market price, subsequently restraining the financial and trade exchanges as well as the role of
capital markets and banks.
These countries suffered from an inflatory role of
the state transforming the latter into a dominant static authority and system of governance that
rules these countries according to inflexible and authoritarian mechanisms. The crisis of democracy
was among the major reasons for the failure of developmental efforts especially as the state turned
into its rentier function, inflating the number of military and civilian employees and linking
employment to the authoritarian networks.
In the last decades, this model
began experiencing a gradual degradation of its social reforms, increasingly transitioning toward a
market economy with a minimal role for the state. This recent development has been associated with
the growth of unproductive parasitic activities and with the formation of a parallel informal
economy growing in the context of abnormal local and international economic relations. These
countries did not succeed in supporting the industrial process with a scientific research policy to
promote a longer industrial life term. They also did not succeed in their social policies,
protective economic policies, relations with the international markets, or in their efforts to
strengthen the development process by increasing the level of participation, democratization and
enhancement of civil society. Now they are faced with very difficult conditions, increasingly
subjugated to the terms of international financial institutions and the requirements of structural
adjustment policies, thus neglecting their previous developmental policies.
The liberal model contains a variety of
Arab countries in the Arab East and North Africa that share common premises in their socio-economic
policies. Here too there are no developmental policies, but a dependent capitalist pattern seeking
to implement the liberal economic principles and laws as an organizing prototype for its economic
This model can be described as follows:
• Minimal role of the state: The state plays a minimal role in the economy,
especially in the productive sector, thus limiting it to the legal regulatory organization and to
the provision of primary public services.
• Absence of binding
governmental plans: Even when the government adopts a three, five or ten year plan, this plan does
not constitute more than a general framework. Under this scenario, basic economic activity is
considered the responsibility of the private sector.
between the economic sectors: The economies of these countries suffer from clear imbalances between
the economic sectors as the productive sector is generally weakened, while the service sector is
strengthened. However, it is also characterized by the absence of protective measures, very limited
subsidies and the market pricing of national and foreign currencies.
• Exterior economies: They are also characterized as exterior economies,
externally oriented in their finance, imports including food, machinery and other important
commodities. This in most cases has lead to deficits in the balance of trade and balance of payment
because of the limitations of their internal revenues.
of political movements: The minimal role of the state in many of these countries allowed the
emergence of a number of political movements and parties, making room for the development of civil
society relatively independent from the state.
limitations of the Arab liberal model: However, the structural limitationsof this Arab liberal model
distinguishes it from the European liberal model as it may in the former come under monarchical or
sectarian political systems and may be associated with a tribal, sectarian or family based social
structure. In addition, it comes without the economic rationality of the bourgeoisie, as it was in
Europe after the industrial revolution. That is why economic activity is inter-twined with the power
relations network, including sectarian and tribal relations, and dependency on global capitalist
centers. The same distortions make the political structure and democracy a very fragile one.
Democratic practices are linked to internal struggles and the complex balance of forces internally
rather than a consistent policy based on a firm option.
• The role
that the state has played in economic legislation, and in the social sphere, especially in providing
the essential public services, has been affected by the concept of the welfare state, Keynesian
economics, and socialist alternatives. With the emergence of neo-liberalist thought, these countries
were quickly responding, without difficulties, to the requirements of the transformation of their
roles towards the removal of all restrictions on freedom of trade and the opening of markets,
accompanied by a reduction in socialist policies to the point of total negligence.
These three state models, however, share relatively
common social structural characteristics:
• They all suffer
from weak institutions in spite of the varying degrees of strength of the repressive apparatus,
which in turn, qualify many of them as weak states.
• They all share
a crisis of political legitimacy, or at least weak and skeptical approval, and lack of political
• They all have relatively a narrow social base of
support, and they resort to changing social pacts and alliances, which may lead to instability.
• They also share a various degrees of hegemony of the state over
representative institutions, decision-making processes, and civil society organizations that are
weak or dependent on the state.
• This severe centralization of the
state and its institutions is associated with the weak institutionalization of the administration,
and the wide spread of corruption. As a result, the ruling elite continued to use the state as a
basic means in political mobilization and the reproduction of power. Such practices increase the
rentier functions of the state both politically and economically, so that the State is no longer
perceived as a public good. This characteristic makes corruption in the administration, which is a
global phenomenon, a very peculiar case in the Arab world because it is linked to the dominant
political relations distinguishing Arab state and society. The absence of an efficient public
administration capable of implementing public policies and managing development not only hinders
development, but also leads to the loss of efforts and a heavy waste and corruption. The issue of
failure to separate between the ruling institutions and capital accumulation and distribution
institutions is also common and is considered a formidable obstacle forbidding the development of
both the private sector and the emergence of an independent middle class. That is especially
relevant when the nation’s wealth is directed mainly to protect and consolidate the ruling class’s
grip over political power.
• The social fabric is strongly
patriarchal. Social interactions are organized in terms of vertical patron–client relations rather
than a horizontal, class-based organization of societal interests. They are shaped by informal and
personalized relations rather than by formal rules, and are determined by traditional loyalties.
• Finally, it is also observed that authoritarianism appears to be
both a consequence of failure and a response favored by rulers faced with slow economic growth, the
degradation of the political and social climate, the decline of educational systems, and moral and
III. Civil Society Organizations:
Research interest has increased
recently in Arab civil society organizations . Civil Society is the place where groups,
associations, clubs, guilds, syndicates, federations, unions, parties, and cultural groups come
together to provide a buffer between state and citizen. The following groups meet these
1) Membership-based professional associations, such as
syndicates of lawyers, engineers, writers, and medical doctors who are usually politicized and are
engaged in national and public policy debates.
organizations (NGOs) that either provide social services (e.g., commercial micro-credit, vocational
education and training, civic education etc.) or are outright political, demanding greater
associational and media freedoms from the state. Their number across the region has grown from
20,000 in the 1970s to 70,000 by the mid-1990s. Egypt alone holds about 14,000 NGOs, while
Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, and Tunisia collectively host 21,000 more. As one of the
fastest growing communities, NGOs perceive themselves as the vanguard of political change and have
become increasingly professionalized.
3) Public interest advocates,
such as human rights activists, women's movements, corruption watchdogs, think tanks, and other
associations that call for respect of international treaties and norms.
4) Trade unions and syndicates whose importance is in their sizable membership and
relatively good financial resources.
5) Informal social groups, such as
mutual-aid networks, cooperatives, recreational clubs, and youth leagues.
6) Political movements and parties that are involved in public policy issues and
are independent of state power. In certain countries, such as Lebanon, Morocco and Algeria, these
are legally recognized political parties, while in some other countries, such as Egypt, Kuwait and
Bahrain, these political movements may not be legally recognized but tolerated.
The number of CSOs, no doubt, has increased during the
last two decades. CSOs tripled in number in Lebanon reaching more than seven thousand in 2009, and
increased in places where they did not exist openly such as Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi
Nonetheless, the role of "civil society" in democratic transformations in the
Arab region remains questionable. Civil Society can broaden the space of freedom and can monitor the
state institutions and hold them accountable or at least pressure them to be less authoritarian.
This role, however, is conditional on the independence or autonomy of civil society organizations,
on the one hand, and citizen’s civic engagement on the other hand. The absence of these
prerequisites is hindering the role of civil society organizations in democratic transformation. The
following three observations testify to this limited role of civil society organizations:
1. In most cases, the individual citizen as a legal persona is weak or
absent as the relationship between the state and citizens is indirect and other social organizations
(tribe, family, ethnicity, religion, confessional group, etc...) play the role of the necessary
middle organization between state and citizens, thus weakening the concept of citizenship.
2. Civil society is a reflection of existing divisions in society and thus
may reproduce these divisions instead of developing new civic values. Thus, these communal
pre-modern divisions are distorting civil society organizations.
Civil Society organizations, including political parties, are yet to develop democratic values and
practices as they lack internal democratic governance practices.
IV. Social Classes
liberal democracy have been historically correlated with the role played by the middle class and the
bourgeoisie especially, as this role is relevant to liberalization and private sector development.
The working class is equated with the struggle for democratization and expansion of liberal
democracy. However, in the case of peripheral capitalism, such as the Arab World, where both the
size of these classes and their relative lack of development due to their emergence in late colonial
circumstances, the state has been able to impose incorporative forms of political control. This has
been the case in the clientalist, populist and bureaucratic authoritarian structures under the
rentier economy. To some extent, this can explain why the commercial bourgeoisie and land
owning class failed in the liberal experiments of the 1940’s. They failed to expand the social basis
of support and participation and thus failed to consolidate and expand liberalization and
democratization. Moreover, the commercial bourgeoisie played an intermediary role between the local
market and the dominant colonial power, which conditioned and limited its political role and
alliances in favor of the colonial power. In the 1950s with the rise of the Army to power, the
middle class established its legitimacy through state capitalism as an economic model and
nationalism as an ideology. The state dominated the political system with the army and the
bureaucracy of the state playing the hegemonic role.
The process of state domination over political parties, civil society, media, and
the economy was highly authoritarian and oppressive. In the 1970s and 1980s, these states
began experiencing their economic crises (Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Algeria, and Iraq) because of the
failure of the import-substitution strategy. As the debt crisis hit them in the early 1980s,
economic stagnation eroded their ability to maintain the continued support of their social base of
support and the population at large. It forced them to liberalize their economies as a means of
attracting foreign investment and securing debt relief loans from the international community.
Nonetheless, their economic liberalization remained a survival strategy and was not associated with
profound political liberalization and democratization.
The authoritarian state weakened the working class and other deprived groups in
society to a point of total containment. These social forces were preoccupied with meeting basic
needs (, so that their political socialization did not give a priority to democracy and
democratization. This may explain why political Islam emerged in the 1970s to fill up the vacuum
created by the crisis of the authoritarian state and the weak role of socio-political forces with
However, the search and buildup of the social forces that will act as the agent for
democratic transformation will continue in the Arab World with the failure of the middle class model
(National Statist model), compounded by the failure of the intermediary commercial bourgeoisie (that
looks for its legitimacy through external links and alliances and not internal politics.)
The objective social transformation is producing new
forces (well-educated youth, women, and new economic forces) who are trying to find their role in
society and in politics despite the formidable resistance, they are facing. These new social
movements, political groups and other civil society groups are but an indication and a reflection of
these changes in the different Arab societies.
V. The role of the external factors
The underlying conditions in Arab society suggest that
the lack of democracy in the region may be also be attributable to the absence or weakness of
external forces that have driven democratization elsewhere. At the same time, the question remains
as to whether democracy can be imposed from the outside, in the absence of national ownership. The
weakness of the local social basis and forces for democratization presents the fundamental problem
in the transition to democracy. On the other hand, the dubious history of US engagement, with
autocratic regimes as primary allies has undermined Western credibility to bring about
democratization in the Arab world, shedding light on the double standards with which the West deals
with the region. The US can espouse democracy, while concomitantly supporting Arab regimes that are
renowned for repressing their own people.
Historically and up until today,
the West is notorious for having supported autocratic regimes in the past that have flagrantly
opposed democracy. Western support for these regimes had been extraordinary and very
effective. Recently, the US engagement in the Arab world has witnessed a radical shift from funding
authoritative regimes that have justified crushing opposition movements in the name of "security" in
the region, to enforcing regime change and democratization instead. In an interview with the
Guardian, British Prime Minister Tony Blair explained this transition as a realization on the part
of the US that “security measures aren't enough.” American foreign policy has consequently evolved,
culminating in a new notion of security, more in line with Europe’s, conceding, “security measures
in themselves will not provide enough security.” As such, the best guarantee of security is a
re-developed Middle East, one in which there is a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict,
and where democracy, human rights and freedom prevail.
In addition to distrust of the West due to double standards, unjustified bias toward
Israel, and Western anti-democratic engagement in the region historically, there is a genuine
concern as to whether the West can simply export democracy to the Arab world. As Lisa Anderson puts
“Thus far, the United States has evinced no appetite for the inevitably awkward and painful
discussion of its past and present role in the region that genuine democratization would entail. It
continues to collude with the regimes in power, permitting fixed elections and human rights fakery
to provide a fig leaf that allows it and its client regimes to continue in the game.”
In conclusion, foreign support must take a backseat, and can play a secondary
role in support of local democratization initiatives. Democracy must grow out of and develop
Finally, in brief, this paper analyzed the important long-term structural
effect and impact of the state, social structure, civil society and social class and forces on lack
of democratization in the Arab countries in general. It showed that the impact of these factors
supersedes any temporary arrangements and policies of limited liberalization, especially as Arab
regimes are carrying them out as a survival strategy in most cases.