Friday, 16 November 2007

Can democracy yield benefits for the Middle East? Is Western democracy compatible with Middle Eastern soicety?

In an earlier post I presented the argument that civil society, as a channel of political activism, had been effectively repressed by undemocratic governments in the Middle East. After some thought, I feel that I may have come across as paternalistic. I have always thought that democracy, in the form that it takes in Western-centric political philosophy, is both normatively and positively the paramount system of governance. I am sure that that perspective came through what should have been an unbiased critique. But now, I wonder, is democracy the best form of government for the contemporary Middle Eastern context? Moreover, even if civil society was able to upset the power structure, would a Western-style democracy be established?

Let us first define what we mean by "democracy". Democracy, in the simplest sense, is rule by the people. In the Western manifestation, it implies rule through abstract representatives elected at various geographical levels - eg. city, state and national. I believe that democracy, and abstract representation, must be differentiated. In this post, I argue that democracy, not in the Western sense, is the best solution for the social economic and political problems of the region.

In today’s Middle East, the static undemocratic regime is largely the ubiquitous political structure. During the post-colonial period, the two salient features of the Middle Eastern state have become longevity and authoritarianism. Collectively, Middle Eastern states form a highly undemocratic bloc. In 2000, on a scale of 10 to -10, with -10 being the lowest possible score, all members of the region received negative Polity IV rating evaluations. Based on measures of executive recruitment, competitiveness of political participation, and chief executive constraint, individual country scores ranged from -2 in the cases of Jordan and Yemen, to -10 in the cases of Qatar and Saudi Arabia (Noland 2005).

Unsurprisingly, the distribution of both power and wealth is extremely inequitable in the region. The reason being that the region's economy primarily revolves around rent-seeking. The vast majority of natural resources are controlled by the state. In oil-producing countries, petroleum exports account for almost half of GDP. Resource control results in state governments acquiring fabulous wealth. For example, 90% of the Saudi monarchy's revenue is gained from oil exports. In those states that are not oil-producers, such as Syria, wealth is still accrued to the state through aid from regional and external actors following geopolitical strategies. Economic prosperity is exclusive to members of the ruling elite, those involved with the oil industry, and those co-opted by these two entities. More often than not, individuals outside these categories suffer from abject poverty. Moreover, in an unrepresentative form of government, the incumbents have no interest in altering the existing establishment. These factors, among other reasons, have resulted in the term "resource curse" being applied to the entire region. Thus, I believe that the region can benefit from a representative government that will extend the rewards of oil-wealth to all citizens.

However, will a representative form of government flourish in the Middle East? In this context, I believe that a Western form of democracy is not a viable solution to issues of governance and socioeconomic inequity. Middle Eastern kinship structures are not conducive to abstract voting patterns. Israel, perhaps the only semblance of a democracy in the region (albeit doubtlessly flawed), provides an example as to why this is the case. Research shows that the nation's Bedouin tribes are unwilling to allow someone outside their own kinship structures to represent their interests. The same may be extended to Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. As a result, voter turnout is, as a whole, very low in the region. Moreover, in Egypt, voting, even in the case of civil society organizations, never yields more than 10-15% turnout. Evidence abounds to support my claim that a Western democracy cannot be implemented in the Middle East.

In conclusion, I believe that representative government and not Western democracy is needed in the region. However, questions such as whether representatives will become co-opted into the socioeconomic elite and give up on supporting popular interests, persist. But I believe, a kinship-based confessional representation structure, a la the Afghan jirga convention (, could prove to be most effective.

In short, the US implementation of Western democracy in Iraq is a futile endeavor.