Middle East’s uncertain democracy

Excitement over the revolution in Egypt is tempered with worries that old autocrats will be replaced by new ones. The Middle East has no tradition of democratic institutions. Why so? There are many reasons, but we will focus on the shallowness of the Middle East’s colonisation. Britain and France directly ruled colonies in Asia and Africa, creating institutions that sometimes (though by no means always) helped usher in democracy.

But the colonial powers merely controlled the Middle East through subservient monarchs, and did not rule these directly. So, these never developed liberal institutions, and made the Middle East relatively infertile ground for democracy.

Several countries of the region have attained upper middle income status: per capita income exceeding $3,850. Political theorists argue that this will lead to ultimately irresistible demands for democracy from a rising middle class (as happened in Korea and Taiwan). But this has not quite happened in the Middle East. Euphoria over the overthrow of the Shah of Iran faded when he was succeeded by tyrannical mullahs.

Nobody expects an exact replay of that in Egypt, yet military or theocratic rule loom as possibilities. True democracy looks a fragile hope rather than confident expectation. The Middle East is much richer than Asia. India, Pakistan Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all developed democratic roots of varying strength while they were poor. Within Africa, Botswana and Mauritius became and stayed democratic when they were very poor. Why is the Middle East an exception?

You might think that European colonial influence, which brought in notions of democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity, would have impacted the Middle East as much as Asia. The Middle East was run by the Ottoman Empire until World War I. After that, Britain and France took over the these parts of the Ottoman Empire, creating new countries ranging from French-controlled Syria and Lebanon to British-controlled Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The British also controlled Egypt from the late 19th century to 1952.

Such imperial control without direct rule made a big difference. In India, the British Raj brought in institutions such as accountability of rulers (Clive and Warren Hastings were impeached), an independent judiciary, a free press (subject to some censorship), and substantial civil liberties (though tainted by racism). During the Quit India movement, some Indian student agitators avoided arrest by taking refuge in university campuses, where, by tradition, the police did not or were reluctant to enter. This would be unthinkable in an autocracy.

The British looted, plundered and raped like all earlier conquerors. But they also brought some institutions of the European Enlightenment. In a few cases, like India, these institutions had strong roots by Independence. In other places, especially Africa, the roots were very shallow.

But in the Middle East there were no roots at all. In a democracy, dissent is not only permissible but honourable, and the Leader of the Opposition is an important institutional figure. However, in traditional monarchies, any dissent was treason, justifiably punishable by death. Subjects were supposed to be loyal to the king, not to abstract institutional principles.

Direct British rule helped establish the right to dissent and dilute the notion of treason. Congress leaders were often jailed but never in danger of decapitation, and had enough status to be called for negotiations to London. Alas, this did not happen in the Middle East, where the British put despotic monarchs in power, seeking to profit (mostly through control of oil) without checking that despotism. They wanted control without responsibility.

So, the Middle East never developed the idea or institutions of honourable dissent, which is critical for a functioning democracy. Rulers believed that if they lost power, they would lose their lives and riches—this had been true throughout history.

As such, it would be rash to assume that the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt will have happy endings. Yet it would be wrong to despair. Modern technology has created new avenues of dissent. In the Middle East, the media was long controlled by rulers to prevent dissent. But the fax machine provided an early way to spread dissent at home and abroad. This expanded hugely with the arrival of the internet, which made information available to all, and could be controlled only partially by censors.

Even more important, in my view, was the emergence of Al Jazeera, the independent radio and TV stations based in Qatar. For the first time, an Arab TV station adopted international standards of reportage, analysis and satire. Al Jazeera brought dissent and satire into every Arab living room, to an audience infinitely larger than that connected to the internet. For the first time dissent and scorn became an everyday Arab staple, not something that might land you in jail.

The internet transformed information but Al Jazeera transformed the concept of treason. Thus, institutions that were never brought in by colonial rulers are now entering the Middle East through modern communication technologies.

So, a transition to democratic values is indeed possible. The Middle East revolutions could have a happy ending. But the path will be strewn with obstacles and occasional bloody suppressions. Democracy still looks altogether better established in colonies that were ruled directly.

One thought on “Middle East’s uncertain democracy

  • 2011.Mar.04 at 14:19

    Hey Swami….I just got off reading Friedman in the NYT and I suspect your view is more realistic and nuanced than his (not that I am saying he is bad!).

    Thanks for a great article. again.


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