Elections Do Not a Democracy Make

By Kenneth Stein

Published April 08, 2005, issue of April 08, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It may be the fondest wish of many outside the Middle East — and much more importantly, the wish of those who reside in the region — to move toward democratic freedoms, but wanting it and doing it are entirely different matters.

Claiming that democracy is on the march does not make it so. It is more than throwing money at a problem, shaping an initiative or catalyzing change from afar. For democratic principles to stick, structural changes in political culture must first occur, and they must come from within. No matter what historical context you choose, Arab political culture, with its autocratic underpinnings, has remained relatively immune to major changes.

In 1988, Georgetown University professor Hisham Sharabi wrote “Neopatriarchy,” an extraordinarily insightful assessment of Arab political culture. Tribe, kinship and patriarchalism, he wrote, are key structures in contemporary Arab politics. Historically, tribal leaders, caliphs, sultans, kings and more recently presidents, along with their attending elites, held tightly to power. Relationships to one another and to foreign powers enabled rulers to sustain their political dominance.

In addition, rulers and elites used their privilege and power to make the public purse their own. Nepotism, corruption, monopolies and providing contracts to friends and relatives were and remain unexceptional. Political power and economic advantage is more often determined by who you know, or through family ties.

Connections matter, whether they are for obtaining a building permit, gaining admission to a school, being promoted up the military command or receiving a company’s profit. Nearly 20 years ago, while visiting Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s home village near Latakia, I asked Assad’s brother who employed the village’s residents. “Don’t worry,” he replied, “my brother will make sure everyone has a good job.”

Through a variety of mechanisms, Middle Eastern elites have sustained considerable power over their populations. They control economic resources or access to them, are protected by powerful military establishments, use internal security services to manage and monitor the public’s behavior and, when necessary, become the employers of last resort.

Legitimacy to rule has not come from open primary systems or raucous political conventions. Political institutions such as parliaments or political parties have historically been exclusive clubs, serving or recycling the same elites. Efforts by the aging stalwarts of Fatah, the party that has dominated Palestinian politics for four decades, to check the rise of younger adherents are but one example.

The recent municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, held by the government with the nominal aim of increasing public participation in domestic policy, did little more than reinforce religious, tribal and family lines. While much was made of Saudi Arabia getting its democratic feet wet, real political reform is unlikely to follow. Riyadh’s views on a constitutional monarchy are captured by Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz, who, as interior minister last year, reportedly said, “We can hold elections and predetermine the results.” Elections alone do not constitute democracy.

So how can democratic principles take root and be sustained if political identity remains strongly tied to family, tribe and ethnic affiliation; if politics is managed by a few; if leaders are institutions, but there is little institutional leadership; if connections matter as much or more than merit, and if there is little public trust for government? It is not impossible, as the Iraqis are feverishly trying to prove, and as the Palestinian majority has so far demonstrably shown. This is a marathon, not a 100-meter dash.

Perhaps more worrisome, when autocracy makes way for democracy, what prevents the government from becoming more tyrannical than the regime it replaced? After the shah’s fall, who expected a conservative clerical regime to dominate Iran? Who’s to say that another strongman won’t eventually replace the now-deposed Saddam Hussein? British Prime Minister Tony Blair raised the specter of that fear recently when he said, “It would have been a really serious setback if we had replaced one strongman regime [in Iraq] with another. That would have been a disaster.”

What happens if there is one man, one vote, one time? Nothing, if the autocrat’s tools of control — military and secret services and use of the public purse for private purposes — are not taken away from them. In the transition to democracy, there is always the likelihood of the former elite using the new political system to re-entrench itself.

Democracy can be a dangerous organizing system if the institutions are not put in place that check the executive — advocating freedom and liberty do not solve pervasive structural problems. You cannot eat democracy; freedom does not guarantee you a job.

In a recent speech, President Bush referred to the Middle East as a region “simmering in despair and resentment. Authoritarian rule,” he continued, “is not the wave of the future.” However, no amount of locally nurtured pluralism will survive the massive population explosions in the region. No known annual gross domestic product increase will sustain any economy, let alone newly developing democracies or overhauled economies, when a population doubles in less than a quarter-century.

The Middle East is marketing democratic noises, but its inherent structures and behavior remain from a pre-democratic era. For all the talk of change blowing through the region, the state of reform in the Middle East, according to one of the region’s most respected political analysts, Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal, is motionless. “Dictatorial regimes,” he reportedly said last month, in words we would do well to heed, “not only put a stop to people’s dreams and ambitions, but also kill the possibility of any renewal in society.”

Kenneth Stein is William E. Schatten professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history, political science and Israeli studies at Emory University.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.