Why Democracy Fails in the Arab World


In a single week in August 2013, the Rabia massacre and Ghouta chemical gas attack were conducted by the Egyptian and Syrian governments. Beyond all analyses and explanations for the ‘rise of radicalism’ across the region in these years, this one week in August was the genesis of a new path of events that lead to the fallout of the Arab Spring, and the rise (and fall) of terrorist groups emanating from the battlefields of Syria, Libya, and Iraq.

None of this was inevitable. Like in any complex system, sudden events and arbitrary decisions can lead to an alternative chain of events than was previously considered likely. The week of violence in August 2013 were explicit decisions made by the governments of Egypt and Syria that would shape the subsequent course of events.

However, beyond regime repression, it is also useful to look at other reasons for the failure in political transition in the Arab world. Why did the old guard react with savagery instead of embracing a new order in which they could maneuver and benefit from any real uplifting of their country’s prospects? What if they had not escalated events and allowed the process of institutionalising democratic norms and processes? Why did revolutionary leaders, parties, and ‘the masses’ fail to use the window of opportunity in the early years of the Arab Spring to lead a transformation of their societies?

Complexity and the Limits of Revolution’ goes some way in helping us to understand the process of institutional transformation and why this didn’t succeed in the Arab world. Published in 2012 around the apex of the revolutions, Alexander and Yaneer predicted the failure of the Arab Spring by applying a complex systems analysis to democratic and autocratic societies. The paper looks at key revolutions throughout modern history, including the French and Russian revolutions, to provide its argument with evidence. Where old regime institutions are successfully grafted into the new order, an evolutionary process occurs as old and new are melded together, creating an evolutionary process and a greater likelihood of stable political transition into a democratic order.

It would be different if the government were a team, but in fact they are a loose confederation of warring tribes. — Sir Ian Whitworth, ‘Yes, Minister’

Democratic systems are more complex than autocratic systems owing to the need to incorporate more people into decision-making. Governments should not be seen as unitary bodies but as a complicated ecosystem of different factions and coalitions, each with their own self-interests, often uniting to support one agenda while opposing each other on another agenda. The complexity of a democratic system is in itself a check and balance against autocracy by creating the need to communicate information and align interests across the entire ecosystem, and to have this system coordinate around the production and execution of agreed-upon policy. Organising people is difficult, and it is this difficulty that democracy is designed around to ensure the distribution of power.

Autocratic systems are much flatter: decision-making is restricted to far fewer factions and individuals (such as oligarchic systems, family-run states, and otherwise), bodies like the legislature and judiciary tend to be far less powerful, and as a result, the people’s vote and media rights are restricted and executive figures and bodies have less of a need to pander to them when making and justifying policies. Autocracies can therefore produce and execute policies faster than democracies, with the trade-off being that they lack the input of a wider portion of society, and the filters that this provides to weed out bad policies through ensuring that they serve as much of society’s interests as possible.

When revolutions occur, they critically ‘disrupt the complex web of dependencies’ between the various institutions that make up society, including inter-governmental department relationships, and public-private relationships between state, market, and society. In this case, a democratic system risks backsliding into an autocratic system, and an autocratic system could still backslide further yet.

The consequence of violent revolutions is more often than not a reversion to autocracy. Revolutions destroy ‘accumulated complexity’, and when new governments after a revolution attempt to rebuild this complexity, it often lacks the means to do so and autocracy fills the gap instead. Where revolutions do succeed is where they are largely non-violent and existing governmental structures are not overthrown but integrated into the new order.

Democracy Requires Social Technologies

At this point, it’s useful to introduce some terms from Violence & Social Orders (’VSO’). VSO looks at the requirements for states to transition from ‘natural states’ to semi-open orders to full access orders, roughly mapping to pre-modern/totalitarian — autocratic — democratic.

Written from the western point of view, liberal democracy as the end state of development should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, it offers a useful schema and set of requirements for transitions to (and back from) open access orders.

The book raises an important point about transitions to democracy: it isn’t about possessing a set of form institutions like democratically-elected governments and ballot boxes. A key requisite for a functional democratic system of government requires the social technologies that permit the transition of power from government to government without factions becoming fearful or greedy and rupturing the process and social trust in the fairness of the process of the vote. Without a necessary level of trust to exist between different groups in society, the democratic process would either break down and factions resort to autocracy to keep the state functioning, or democratic governments would continue to be elected but lack the legitimacy to get anything done.

In essence, they would become puppet governments with the real power lying elsewhere. Palladium has a great case study on Hezbollah’s parallel state operating underside the Lebanese government. Lebanon is an example of ‘stable stagnation’; with the deep wounds of the civil war still in living memory, Lebanese factions are reluctant to formally acknowledge that the Lebanese state is a walking corpse, which could then lead to a new civil war to remake the political order of the country.

In discussions around political transitions in the Arab world, the importance of social technologies is either downplayed or dismissed outright. Often, accusations of racism or ‘islamophobia’ are leveled: why aren’t Arabs treated as equally capable as, say, Europeans in creating democratic systems? This misses the wider point that western societies went through decades, if not centuries, of coups, civil wars, world wars, and painstaking institutional transformation to arrive at their current point. It sits on that accumulation of complexity. The Arab world does not possess a similar level of accumulated complexity, more often than not being the misshapen creation of European legislators who drew lines in the sand with little regard for the native laws, customs, and ethnic lines of the peoples that lived there.

Lacking this accumulated complexity, violent revolutions destroy what little exists, resulting in an even more fragile ecosystem of institutions, greatly enhancing the risk of reversion to autocracy.

Transition represents a bit of a chicken and egg problem: do you formalise democratic processes and hope to reverse-engineer society into accepting and maintaining them? Or, is it necessary to engineer society beforehand, after which democratic institutions arise out of the ‘substance’ of that society; i.e. high social trust, a belief in contracts, and wider freedom for organisations to form and to develop civil society without state control or patronage.

The difference in either of these approaches leads to the crux of Alexander and Yaneer’s argument in their paper: between a revolutionary and an evolutionary approach, it is the latter that creates sustainable democratic institutions and societies, with the former often destroying far more than it creates.

The evidence seems overwhelming at this point that formal demands and institutions are not enough to give birth to democratic institutions and societies. Lacking the right social technologies, an unprimed society would quickly rip its nascent democracy apart because they do not yet have the trust in the system to fairly: adjudicate on matters of justice, to distribute resources, or to balance coalitions and interests.

But this process has its own problems.

Making life difficult through bureaucratic inanity is a hallmark of corrupt and inefficient states. It is often a byproduct of the lack of professionalism and low incentives in the environment in which government bureaucrats operate, but it is also convenient for authoritarian governments to hinder freedom of movement, communication, and goods. Poverty-as-policy enables greater social control as poorer people are more concerned with basic survival than the well-off, who are often the source of political intrigue and even the primary drivers of revolution. Without having a faction of elites interested in evolutionary reform, then there is no recourse for the people ‘below’ apart from revolution.

Lack of Elite Patronage

To institutionalise democratic social technologies, state and society requires patronage by some faction of elites who are dissatisfied with their current share of power and rents, and see a way to increase that share not just through acquiring a larger slice of the pie, but increasing the size of the pie as a whole. This faction would essentially provide regulatory cover by pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the current set of power arrangements to permit more people to move into the elite class, reduce regulations on commerce, and allow people greater input in the decision-making process. This elite also has to be willing to integrate willing elements of the older order into the new one. This is often why revolutions fail; demands for a clean slate only serve to back incumbents into a corner and do whatever it takes to maintain their hold on power.

Revolutionary parties across the Arab Spring weren’t very good at this. Factional in-fighting and deadlock was the norm and cooperation was the exception, usually limited in scope until some petty issue over who got to extract what rents resulted in fallout. The collapse of post-revolution territories in Libya and Syria were a direct result of the failure to establish buy-in between key power players, let alone to drive a process of institutionalizing democratic norms and processes. Revolutionary forces in Syria were splintered into hundreds of often-competing groups who could not unite supply chains to fight the Assad regime on a single front, could not appoint a single political party or representative to voice their vision for the future of Syria, and were ultimately unwilling to trust each other. The result was factional in-fighting, assassinations, turf wars, and their subsequent defeat at both the hands of the Assad regime and ISIS in most of Syria.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was not very interested in power-sharing arrangements with the old guard of the Egyptian state. Muhammad Morsi, then-President and leader of the brotherhood’s political wing in Egypt, was unwilling to listen to the advice of Rachid Ghannouchi, which was to adopt a gradualist, power-sharing approach with the old guard and institutionalise democratic norms and processes. Ghannouchi seemed to have an understanding of the complex path ahead for Tunisia if democracy was to work. Instead of monopolising power after successful elections, Ghannouchi chose the careful path of power-sharing with the old guard, and a gradual approach to institutionalising the norms of democracy in Tunisian state and society.

Constructing Complex Societies

Constructing a complex society is a painstaking process that requires social technologies like higher trust among the general population, and the willingness of a small group of elites to widen their membership in anticipation of enlargening the pie. The Arab Spring seemed to lack both of these crucial elements.

Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia pursued different revolutionary methods to try and replace their governments. Syria resulted in one of the most devastating civil wars in modern history. Egypt and Tunisia overthrew their governments largely without bloodshed and took different paths thereafter. The coup in Egypt was swift and bloody; in Tunisia, the old guard had to maneuver around Ghannouchi and achieve a coup-via-procedure spanning a decade of political wrangling. Here we have three different countries with three different paths. In all cases, revolutionary factions failed to undertake sustained political transitions, resulting in their reversion to autocratic governance by much of the pre-revolution old guard. Most Arab governments are vicious and cruel, and while not possessing a high-minded level of intelligence do possess a low-level cunning with which to identify threats to their hold on power and maneuver to neuter these threats.

The Arab diaspora-in-exile has burgeoned over the past decade, with cities like Istanbul, London, and Paris becoming key hubs. Many have abandoned revolutionary activities and have become disenchanted with political change; others still harbour hopes for the chance to try again. With Arab regimes demonstrating continued incompetent rule, none of the problems of poverty or repression being solved, the idea is that the Arab Spring is merely the first phase in the ‘self-determination’ of Arab opposition factions.

In my estimation, it is likely that the Arab street will revolt again once the wounds of the Arab Spring are faint enough, and when Arab governmental incompetence reaches a tipping point once again. The real question is whether Arab factions interested in sustained democratic transitions can learn from their own failure in institutionalising democratic norms and processes, and forming coalitions that can overthrow the incumbent government and create a new, stable government that doesn’t devolve into factional deadlock or civil war.

The literature I’ve looked at in this article is still limited in explaining the events of the Arab Spring. A complex systems approach, and the process of revolution and political transitions, are useful and contribute towards understanding the events of the Arab Spring - but it doesn’t end there. It’s just one step forward in ensuring that these mistakes don’t occur again.

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