FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT
The recent extraordinary events in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) raise the question of whether, after a period of stagnation, a new wave of democratisation might be upon us—like that in the 1970s or post-1989. Will popular unrest of the sort seen in Egypt not only result in the overthrow of autocratic leaders in other countries but also lead to the emergence of democracy? This is all the more pertinent a question in light of the fact that Egypt, for example, is now under military rule. The situation is supposedly temporary, but historically military rulers in other countries have been reluctant to hand power back to the people. Despite this, the outlook for democracy is broadly positive, for a number of reasons.
A renewed thrust towards democracy would be welcome. During the 1970s and 1980s more than 30 countries shifted from authoritarian to democratic political systems. But in recent years, the post-1970s wave of democratisation has slowed or been reversed. The dominant pattern in all regions has been backsliding on previously attained progress in democratisation. Authoritarian trends appeared to become even more entrenched in the Middle East and much of the former Soviet Union. Democratisation in Sub-Saharan Africa ground to a halt and in some cases was reversed.
In some respects the trend was made worse by the post-2008 economic crisis. There has been a decline in some aspects of governance, political participation and media freedoms, and a clear deterioration in attitudes associated with, or conducive to, democracy in many countries. Many governments have felt increasingly vulnerable and threatened. They have reacted by intensifying their efforts to control the media and impede free expression. Greater repression by increasingly nervous regimes has, in turn, provoked popular reactions.
The following factors bear consideration in attempting to understand whether conditions exist for regime change to lead to democratisation:
* Utterly discredited old regimes. The old regimes are so discredited and lacking in legitimacy that, once overthrown, any chances of restoration or of some form of military dictatorship look slim. “Mubarakism without Mubarak” is not an option. Most authoritarian regimes are now “ideologically naked”—they cannot derive legitimacy from economic success or a strong national ideology.
* Neighbourhood demonstration effects. These effects played a big role in previous democratic transitions—in southern Europe in the 1970s, in Latin America in the 1980s and in post-1989 eastern Europe. Much, certainly in the Middle East and potentially elsewhere, will depend on what happens in Egypt—the biggest, most important and most influential Arab country. The outlook for that country looks hopeful, as many of the factors relating to democratisation possibilities outlined below apply in Egypt.
* Economic distress. Economic difficulties will, on balance, probably work in favour of democratisation, as many authoritarian regimes have manifestly failed to improve their economies or to deal with external economic shocks. There is a strong empirical link globally between economic crises and political upheaval and democratisation. Historically, economic crises and difficulties have been associated with democratic breakthroughs, such as the sudden collapse of seemingly stable autocratic regimes.
* The role of political culture. Survey evidence suggests that the political culture in some countries is conducive to democratisation. In many others it is not. However, even in the latter it may be wrong to overplay this factor. A relatively small section of a population in an urban centre or centres, if sufficiently motivated and mobilised, can carry out nationwide change.
* Islamic forces. It is uncertain what exact role Islamic forces will play in Egypt and elsewhere if democratisation gets under way. There are certainly grounds to be sceptical about predictions that radical Islam will dominate the political scene in most of MENA. It is worth emphasising just how little the popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia owed to Islamic forces. And Egypt will now be the beacon and role model for the rest of the region and beyond. In short, Egypt will not become another Iran; more likely, Iran will become another Egypt. Radical Islam, as an obscurantist ideology—born of desperation, civilisational failure and foreign intervention—will be undermined by successful home-grown popular revolts and the new-found confidence of people who have undertaken these revolts. Free elections would likely reveal a limited popular appeal for radical Islam which has nothing to offer the majority of the population in MENA.
* Shifts in US policy. Finally, a likely shift in US policy away from support for authoritarian regimes will be important. There has been a perverse attempt to interpret events in Tunisia and Egypt as somehow vindicating George W Bush’s “freedom agenda”. Recent events have in fact been the antithesis of the neo-conservative ideology that Mr Bush embraced. The Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings have been home-grown and largely peaceful affairs, and have had nothing to do with Western efforts to export democracy through the barrel of a foreign gun. Whatever upheavals may await Egypt, it is extremely unlikely that the situation will descend into anything like the bloodletting and chaos that was provoked in Iraq by the US-led invasion of 2003. Indeed, the neo-conservative agenda has had much to do with the global stagnation and reversals in democracy in recent years. Egypt and Tunisia happened despite, not because of, the neo-conservatives.
President Barack Obama has been very cautious on democracy promotion, following the Bush-era experience. However, Mr Obama decided during the Egypt crisis to position the US “on the right side of history”, and it is unlikely that there is any going back. But political and moral support does not mean direct intervention. President Obama, perhaps more than any other US leader in living memory, appears to realise the limitations of the US’s ability to influence events elsewhere.
The Pew Global Attitudes survey in 2010 showed that 82% of Egyptians had an unfavourable view of the US—the worst rating for the US in any of the countries surveyed. It is probably not fanciful to suggest that Mr Obama’s stance during the crisis and eloquent speech on the day of Mr Mubarak’s resignation may have gone some way in shifting these attitudes towards a more favourable view of the US.
Already in the US there are strident calls from the large democracy-promotion lobby for the US to get closely involved in post-Mubarak developments in Egypt and elsewhere in MENA. In fact, these movements do not require active US support; all that is needed is for the US not to support, or at least to weaken its backing for, autocratic regimes. This may be enough to tilt the balance. At present, the US has close and friendly ties with about half of the world’s authoritarian regimes. If the US and other Western states re-evaluate fundamentally their previous support for authoritarian rulers in MENA, it would be difficult to continue with similar policies in other parts of the world.
The outlook for democratic transition is uncertain. As has been the case in recent years, major reversals in democratisation have taken place before. For example, a democratisation wave after the second world war ended with more than 20 countries subsequently sliding back to authoritarianism. That sort of rollback has not occurred recently. Democracy as a value retains strong universal appeal worldwide. Despite setbacks and overall stagnation, surveys show that most people in most places still want democracy. Creating democracy by external intervention has been discredited. But trends such as globalisation, increasing education and expanding middle classes tend to favour the organic development of democracy. In its end-2010 survey of the state of democracy in the world, the Economist Intelligence Unit argued that “these underlying forces, even if developing at a slower pace than in the recent past, suggest that the retreat from democracy will not be permanent.”
But nobody would have predicted that a new trend could happen so soon and start in what looked like the most inhospitable environment possible, in a MENA state, or that even the short-term outlook for a new wave of democratisation could look so potentially promising. Democratisation in hitherto authoritarian states will of course not mean an immediate transition to fully-fledged, consolidated democracies. Democracy means more than holding elections; it requires the development of a range of supportive institutions and attitudes. Such a transformation takes a very long time. But even imperfect or flawed democracies would be far better than authoritarianism.