BEIRUT: Autocracy in the Arab world is being bolstered by oil wealth and the instability caused by frequent conflicts in the Middle East, researchers have found after conducting a comprehensive two-year study of countries in the region. Academics met at the American University of Beirut to present their findings on Friday and Saturday, where they said that that the failure to establish democratic political systems in the Arab world could not be blamed on cultural or religious reasons.
The Arab world has long been seen as "a notable exception" to modernization theory, which states that democracy is generally established after a period of economic growth and stability. Despite many Arab countries' enjoying unprecedented growth on the back of the oil boom in the past 50 years, there has not been a corresponding move toward democracy, and the Arab world is consistently considered the least democratic region on the planet. Because democracy is usually followed by better economic performance and stability, researchers were keen to explain the reasons for this "democratic deficit," which has often been seen as a characteristic of Arab culture.
But after building a team of 19 researchers to study in both economic and socio-historical measures, the study found that there is nothing inherent within Arab culture that makes it predisposed to autocratic rule.
Instead, the study identified oil money propping up autocratic regimes and the instability caused by regional conflicts as the two biggest obstacles to democracy in the region. In particular, researchers found that periodic flare-ups in the Arab-Israeli conflict gave autocratic leaders an excuse to crack down on threats to their power.
Samir Makdisi, an economics professor from AUB who wrote the original paper upon which the project is based, said that the conflict was central to the legitimacy of many autocratic regimes in the region.
"The Arab-Israeli conflict has given an excuse for autocracy," he said. "The closer you are to the conflict, the stronger its impact. Normally conflict leads to democracies. But conflict interacting with Arab polity has led to the perpetuation of autocracy. Solving the Palestinian question is key for the spread of democracy in the region."
Other conflicts, from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, have all contributed to propping up autocratic regimes, researchers found. In a region where religion and politics are often closely linked, the resulting spread of religious fundamentalism has been used as a pretext by autocratic rulers to tighten their grip on power.
Makdisi also conducted the Lebanon case study element of the project, together with Fadia Kiwan from St. Joseph University and German researcher Marcus Marktanner. Lebanon, they found, was politically the "most advanced" country in the Arab world, with a partially functioning democracy. But the system is also held back by its sectarian nature. "Lebanon is constrained by what is supposed to liberate it - namely its democratic model," Marktanner said.
Lebanon's "unmatched" experience of civil conflict and the Arab-Israeli conflict had left it with a partial democracy, and fears of igniting sectarian violence had prevented the overhaul of its confessional nature, Marktanner told delegates. He pointed out that Lebanon's unique power-sharing system had failed to prevent the bloody 1975-1990 Civil War.
Rather than preventing conflict, partial democracy is particularly vulnerable to outside influences, Marktanner said.
And, he warned, "Lebanon has not succeeded in safeguarding itself from these threats in future."
Click to view image: '244528-6288526d44ad3701209638aa0966058fgrande1.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|