One year after it captured the world's imagination, the Arab Spring is looking less appealing by the week. The promise of a new birth of freedom in the Middle East has been followed by a much messier reality, particularly in Egypt, where there have been attacks on Christians, Western aid workers and women. And now, as Egypt's presidential election approaches, we see the rise of two candidates from Islamic parties, Khairat al-Shater and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. The former is often described as a moderate, the latter as a radical. Much of what we're seeing might well be the tumult that accompanies the end of decades of tyranny and the rise of long-suppressed forces, but it raises the question, Why does it seem that democracy has such a hard time taking root in the Arab world?
As it happens, a Harvard economics professor, Eric Chaney, recently presented a rigorous paper that helps unravel that knot. Chaney asks why there is a "democracy deficit" in the Arab world and systematically tests various hypotheses against the data. He notes that such majority-Muslim nations as Turkey, Indonesia, Albania, Bangladesh and Malaysia have functioning democratic systems, so the mere presence of Islam or Islamic culture cannot be to blame. He looks at oil-rich states and finds that some with vast energy reserves lack democracy (Saudi Arabia), but so do some without (Syria). He asks whether Arab culture is the culprit, but this does not provide much clarity. Chaney points out that many countries in the Arab neighborhood seem to share in the democracy deficit — Chad, Iran, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan — yet they are not Arab.
Then Chaney constructs a persuasive hypothesis based in ancient history — and modern economics. He notes that the democracy deficit today exists in lands that were conquered by Arab armies after the death in A.D. 632 of the Prophet Muhammad. Lands that the Arabs controlled in the 12th century remain economically stunted today. This correlation is not simply a coincidence. Scholars from Montesquieu to Bernard Lewis suggest that there was something in the political development of the Arab imperial system that seemed to poison the ground against economic pluralism. Arab imperial control tended to mean centralized political authority, weak civil society, a dependent merchant class and a large role for the state in the economy. Chaney documents the latter, showing that the government's share of GDP is 7% higher on average in countries that were conquered by Arab armies than in those that were not. He also finds that countries in the first group have fewer trade unions and less access to credit, features of a vibrant civil society.
There are less medieval factors. It has long been apparent that the dictatorships of the Middle East form close alliances with religious leaders to crowd out other leaders and groups. Coupled with a historically weak civil society, this has created a one-sided political system in which religious parties enjoy powerful advantages in ideology, organization and, perhaps most of all, lack of competition. Indonesia had religious parties just as Egypt does, but it also had powerful groups that were less religious, more moderate and entirely secular. All these groups competed for influence on an even footing, something that is not happening in the Arab world.
The real problem in a country like Egypt is that the military continues to keep power concentrated, undivided and unchecked. It maintains the central role in the economy. Even when it has liberalized control of the economy, it has done so to benefit a handful of cronies and friends. The chief challenge in the Arab world remains to create a vibrant civil society, which means political parties and also a strong, self-sustaining private sector. The term civil society was coined during the Scottish Enlightenment to describe the activities of private businesses, an independent force that existed between the government and the family. The Middle East today has strong families and strong governments, but everything in between is underdeveloped.
If the dysfunctions in the Arab world have ancient roots — going back over a thousand years! — this does not mean that the region is impervious to change. Chaney does not point to immutable factors such as culture or religion as the causes of the problem. History — and the habits it engendered — are democracy's biggest foes in the Arab world. If political structures and institutional design and its legacies are to blame, then as these change, things should improve. It is a prescription for the very long term, but at least it is a prescription.