Several countries at the heart of the 2011 Arab uprisings have held parliamentary or presidential elections. While it seems more than fair that it should now be the Arab world’s turn at democratization, the question has to be raised if citizens of the region’s changeover countries are united in the belief that equitable social development under newly won political and economic freedoms is a realistic promise.
A dynamic and equitable market is a requirement for a democracy that works and the unified belief in a better economic future can make or break a successful transition from an uprising to a resilient democracy and a healthy, just and efficient, economy. It is a crucial need for Arab societies to achieve this democratic consolidation in order to avert dangers of new dictatorships or civil wars, and there are some legitimate doubts whether the Arab world is itself sufficiently prepared and equipped with enough international support to meet this condition.
For one, many Arab citizens today question their states’ legitimacy. They can point to good reasons for this, because at the formation of many of today’s countries stood colonial rulers who lumped different tribes into new countries in the space of a few years. However, when democratization swept over Latin America or over Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, states with strong national identities mastered the transition more easily than states with weak national identities; for example, the former Soviet States or the Balkan countries. As Arabs now question their heritages of nationalities construed by foreign powers, there are signs of suppressed identity-conflicts. As these have been breaking out in the past year, they could carry on with the same ferociousness as they have in the Balkans. And the Arab world has many Balkans: Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.
Inequity’s undermining of democracy
The next barrier is engrained inequality. Equitable social development is the ultimate insurance for successful democratic consolidation. The thought that the middle class is the stabilizing element in a society goes back to ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, in whose mind a democracy was built upon a society with a strong middle class. The Arab world, on the other hand, has to transform unequal societies into equal ones. Relying on democracy as the means to achieve this transformation might be asking too much from democratization.
To have a chance for non-violent transition from ownership concentrated in the hands of a few to a society prospering peacefully under freedom, equal opportunities must be present, or as renowned Arab medieval philosopher Ibn Khaldun wrote: “Justice is a balance set up among mankind.”
Again there are many examples, such as the opportunities of American settlers to stake land claims out West and land reforms in East Asian economies after World War II, showing that developmental success of democratizing countries can be attributed to the creation of equal opportunities. Inversely, social conflict and entrenched economic inequality in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa can today still be traced to the lack of opportunities during and after colonialism. In many Arab countries fertile land is scarce and ownership of land and natural resources are presently concentrated in the hands of political elites. Democratization therefore is bound to generate many redistributive demands. It remains to be seen whether majority demands for reform of ownership will be democratically accepted by the privileged minority.
Societies without trust
One source of doubt in the mutual will of the voting majority and privileged minority is the high level of social mistrust in the Arab world. In 2007, the PEW Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project included six Arab countries in a survey of 46 countries: Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, as well as the West Bank and Gaza. Asked about the statement “Most people in this society are trustworthy,” 57 percent of the surveyed people in the Arab countries responded with “disagree” or “strongly disagree.” This mistrust does not bode well for economic growth by democratization. Democratic effectiveness originates in trust; it does not build it, and thus requires a cooperative platform for decision making.
Lebanon, which is the country with the greatest democratic legacy in the Arab world, can serve as a reference case for other countries. Like many other Arab countries, Lebanon has a long history of political and economic elitism and redistributive conflict that led to internal divides. These divides ultimately invited outside intervention and third-party meddling.
Internal conflict and third party meddling can also be observed now in Libya, Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria. The political and economic grievances that have built up over decades may pose greater challenges than today’s fledgling democratic practices can resolve.
Challenges to development
The Arab region’s economic development prospects are also unlikely to help promote and safeguard the advance of democratic consolidation. Where my home country, Germany, could make strong fiscal commitments to developing the eastern German states after national unification in 1989, and where the prospect of joining the European Union provided a strong tailwind for fast democratic consolidation to economies in Central and Eastern Europe, the outlook for economic development as a driver of successful democratic consolidation is by comparison dismal in the Arab world on at least three counts.
Firstly, Central and Eastern Europe’s reform movement was sustained by a collective memory of private farming and free entrepreneurship. In the absence of such a collective memory, it seems not yet convincing to me that entrepreneurship will emerge strongly and fast enough to accelerate economic growth to the needed levels. It is simply not yet clear what kind of economic development paradigm will eventually emerge after the Arab uprisings.
Secondly, economies in Central and Eastern Europe benefited from starting with a clean slate in parallel political and economic reforms. New political leaders in Prague or Warsaw also had strength in the knowledge that the West had come out in support of democracy-demanding protesters on the streets. By contrast, the Arab world has already experimented with top-down economic reforms since the 1990s and the results were mixed at best. Although the World Bank and International Organizations praised the efforts of the “Maghreb tigers”, these reforms failed to create jobs.
Nepotism and unequal socioeconomic development prevented economic reforms from reaching the youth, and instead economic liberalization bred new economic elites whose fortunes were not based on hard work and entrepreneurship, but on favoritism and tribalism. Additionally, the international community and so-called Western economic reforms have greatly lost credibility among Arab citizens, as the West has for a long time supported autocrats ruling from palaces in Tunis, Cairo, and even Tripoli.
Third, there is much reason to doubt that the West has a sincere interest in true economic reforms in the Arab world. When comparing the West’s economic gain potentials in Central and Eastern Europe with what it could stand to reap from the changes in the Arab world, the reform dividend from the fall of the Berlin Wall was much greater than any reform dividend in the Arab world.
Consequently, the West surely will not commit to the Arab world as it did to Central and Eastern Europe. All rhetoric aside, oil remains what primarily makes Arab economies attractive to the West. The international community is not so much interested in developing new economic opportunities in the Arab world, but in preserving the existing ones.
The Arab uprisings will hopefully be remembered as marking the end of dark chapters of the past, but until a bright new chapter is clearly written and the twin pillars of efficient democracy and healthy economy have been tested, smoke will likely continue to rise up and shroud the future of the Arab world.