Democracy in the Middle East and North Africa According to The Economist Group
's Democracy Index
2020 study, Israel
is the only democratic country (qualified as a "flawed democracy", ranked #28 worldwide) in the Middle East
, while Tunisia
(#53 worldwide) is the only democracy (also "flawed democracy") in North Africa
The level of democracy in nations throughout the world published by Freedom House
, a U.S.-based, U.S. government
, and in various other freedom indices
, report the Middle Eastern and North African countries with the highest scores are Israel
. Countries that are occasionally classified as partly democratic are Egypt
, and Iraq
. The remaining countries of the Middle East are categorized as authoritarian regimes
, with the lowest scores held by Saudi Arabia
Countries classed as "electoral democracies" in 2016 by Freedom House
categorizes Israel and Tunisia as "Free".
As a result, Tunisia is the only country in North Africa
classified as "Free" by the Freedom House
Lebanon, Turkey, Kuwait and Morocco "Partly Free", and the remaining states as "Not Free" (including Western Sahara
, which is largely controlled by Morocco). Events of the "Arab Spring
" such as the Tunisian Revolution
may indicate a move towards democracy in some countries which may not be fully captured in the democracy index. In 2015, Tunisia became the first Arab country classified as free since the beginning of Lebanon's civil war 40 years ago.
Theories are diverse on the subject. "Revisionist theories" argue that democracy is slightly incompatible with Middle Eastern values.
On the other hand, "post-colonial" theories (such as those put forth by Edward Said
) for the relative absence of liberal democracy
in the Middle East are diverse, from the long history of imperial rule by the Ottoman Empire
, United Kingdom
and the contemporary political and military intervention by the United States
, all of which have been blamed for preferring authoritarian regimes because this ostensibly simplifies the business environment, while enriching the governing elite and the companies of the imperial countries. Other explanations include the problem that most of the states in the region are rentier states
, which experience the theorized resource curse
Prior to the complete and definitive end of colonialism
in the mid-nineteenth century, democracy being a fairly new concept at the time, was not as ubiquitous as it is today, especially in the Middle East. Natives of the Arabian peninsula
and horn of Africa
applied their efforts into prioritizing national stability before considering the intricacies of government. Most regions were occupied by squabbling tribes of one ethnicity. To transform these tribes into communities and those communities into a national identity, the custom of electing a sole leader/monarch was adopted throughout most of the Middle East.
Opponents of the act have, however, criticised that democracy cannot be imposed from outside. The two countries have since had relatively successful elections, but have also experienced serious security and development problems.
Some believe that democracy
can be established "only through force" and the help of the United States.
Writers such as Michele Dunne, when writing for the Carnegie Paper
concurs with the rhetoric of the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (at that time, referring to peace and terrorism) that the foreign policy position of the US should be to 'pursue peace as though there were no democratization, and pursue democratization as though there were no peace. In other words, the U.S. government should pursue reform and democratization as policy goals in the first instance without worrying excessively about tradeoffs with other goals."
The U.S. pressure behind the calling of the 2006 Palestinian legislative election
backfired, resulting in the democratically sound victory of Hamas
, rather than the US-supported Fatah
Drawing upon the ideas of Middle East scholar Nicola Pratt it can be argued that:
…the outcome of democratization efforts is [in reality]…contingent upon the degree to which actors' chosen strategies contribute to either reproducing or challenging the relations of power between civil society and the state.
However, recent academic critics have characterized intervention in the Middle East as a means towards engendering democracy a failure. The 2011 study Costs of War
from Brown University
's Watson Institute for International Studies
concluded that democracy promotion has been flawed from the beginning in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with corruption rampant in both countries as the United States prepares to withdraw many of its combat troops. On a scale of democratization established by Transparency International
, Iraq and Afghanistan are two of the worst-ranked countries in the world, surpassed in corruption by only Myanmar
Sociologist Amitai Etzioni
has pointed out that the prerequisite sociological conditions for the establishment of liberal democracies were not present in Iraq and Afghanistan when the United States attempted to engage in nation-building.
Measures of democracy
There are several non-governmental organizations that publish and maintain indices of freedom
in the world, according to their own various definitions of the term, and rank countries as being free, partly free, or unfree using various measures of freedom, including political rights, economic rights, freedom of the press and civil liberties.
An analysis on the level of constitution around the world is conducted every year by Freedom House
. Freedom House analyses political rights (PR), civil liberties (CL) and overall regime status. PR and CL are rated from one to seven, with one being most free and seven being least free. Regimes are classed as either 'free, partly free or not free'.
The below table summarizes the findings of the 2010 - 2015 Freedom in the World
report on the countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
Freedom in the World 2019 – Middle East
Key: * - Electoral democracies (as described above), PR - Political Rights, CL - Civil Liberties, Free Status: Free, Partly Free, Not Free
There are a number of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East. A prominent figure in this movement is Saad Eddin Ibrahim
who advocates and campaigns for democracy in Egypt and the wider region, working with the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies
and serving on the Board of Advisors for the Project on Middle East Democracy
When asked about his thoughts regarding the current state of democracy in the region he said:
People's memories... have become tuned or conditioned to thinking that the problems in the Middle East must be a chronic condition, not that they are only 30 years old, and not realizing that the reason for the current state of the Middle East was first, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and two, the Cold War. The Cold War made the United States and other western democracies look the other way when it came to political oppression and allowed them to deal with tyrants and dictators.
The Middle East Forum
, a think tank based in Philadelphia, recently published their table for measurement of democracy within Middle Eastern states.
Their contention is that little has changed, post-September 11, 2001
, and if anything the "War on Terror
" has enabled many regimes to stifle democratic progress. The results showed very little progress from 1999 to 2005. The report even states that this pattern may be counter-productive to US interests, with Islamism being the only viable opposition to regimes in many Middle Eastern countries. As an additional measure of US attitudes towards the issue of Middle Eastern democratization, on 14 December 2006, the US Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice
stated that democracy in the Middle East was "non-negotiable."
Middle East scholar Louise Fawcett notes how the United Nations Development Programme's Arab Human Development Report 2002
, drafted by Western-educated Arab intellectuals, is modelled "on universal democratic principles."
In addition, Fawcett argues that "Constitutional democracy is viewed not only as an intrinsic good by the putative globalisers who drafted this Report; it is also an instrumental necessity if the region is to stop stagnating and begin to catch up with the rest of the world."
The level of democratic process varies widely from country to country. A few countries, such as Saudi Arabia, do not claim to be democracies; however, most of the larger states claim to be democracies
, although this claim is in most cases disputed
A number of republics
embracing Arab Socialism
, such as Syria
, regularly hold elections
, but critics assert that these are not full multi-party systems
. Most importantly they do not allow citizens to choose between multiple candidates for the presidential election.
The constitution of modern Egypt has always given the president a virtual monopoly over the decision making process, devoting 30 articles (15 percent of the whole constitution) to presidential prerogatives. According to the constitution, the Egyptian president's powers are equivalent to those of the prime minister
in parliamentary systems and to the president of the French Fifth Republic
and the Palestinian Authority
, while also partly accepting this ideology, are generally considered more democratic than other states that do so, but the power of institutions in the latter two are limited by the domination of Syria and Israel, respectively.
is common in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia
and a few other kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula
are considered absolute monarchies. The endurance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East is notable in comparison to the rest of the world. While such regimes have fallen throughout sub-Saharan Africa, for example, they have persisted in the Middle East. Yet Middle Eastern history also includes significant episodes of conflict between rulers and proponents of change.
is a form of government
in which a monarch
acts as head of state
within the guidelines of a constitution
, whether it be a written, uncodified
, or blended constitution. This form of government differs from absolute monarchy
in which an absolute monarch serves as the source of power in the state and is not legally bound by any constitution and has the powers to regulate his or her respective government.
Most constitutional monarchies employ a parliamentary system
in which the monarch may have strictly ceremonial duties or may have reserve powers, depending on the constitution. Under most modern constitutional monarchies there is also a prime minister
who is the head of government and exercises effective political power. The Middle Eastern countries with Constitutional monarchies
are generally considered democratic. For example: Jordan
, and Bahrain
are considered constitutional monarchies.
The Iranian Revolution
of 1979 resulted in an electoral system (an Islamic Republic with a constitution), but the system has a limited democracy in practice. One of the main problems of Iran
's system is the consolidation of power in the hands of the Supreme Leader
who is elected by Assembly of Experts
for life (unless the Assembly of Experts
decides to remove him which has never happened). Another main problem is the closed loop in the electoral system, the elected Assembly of Experts
elect the Supreme Leader of Iran
, who appoints the members of the Guardian Council
, who in turn vet the candidates for all elections including the elections for Assembly of Experts
. However, some elections in Iran, as the election of city councils satisfies free and democratic election criteria to some extent. In other countries, the ideology (usually out of power) has fostered both pro-democratic and anti-democratic sentiments. The Justice and Development Party
is a moderate democratic Islamist party that has come to power in traditionally secular Turkey
. Its moderate ideology has been compared to Christian Democracy
in Europe. The United Iraqi Alliance
, the winner of the recent elections in Iraq, is a coalition including many religious parties.
History of political systems
Issues with the current political system
The current political system in Iran was designed to allow Iranians to decide their future by themselves without being oppressed by authorities, but in practice only allows a limited democracy. One of the main problems of Iran
's system is the consolidation of too much power in the hands of the Supreme Leader
who is elected by the Assembly of Experts
for life (unless the Assembly of Experts decides to remove him, which has never happened). The power of the Supreme Leader under Iran's constitution
is almost unlimited and unrestricted in practice. This combined with the view that he is the representative of God held by some religious groups, being the head of the security and armed forces, and controlling the official state media (the radio and television are restricted to state radio and television) makes him immune from any kind of criticism and unchallengeable. Critics of the system or the Supreme Leader are punished severely. Critical newspapers and political parties are closed, social and political activists like writers, journalists, human right activists, university students, union leaders, lawyers, and politicians are jailed for unreasonably long periods for making simple criticism against the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Republic system, Islam
doctrines, the government, and other officials. They have been even threatened by death sentence (though all such verdict in recent years have been dropped in higher courts in recent years) and some have been assassinated by the Ministry of Intelligence
and militias in the past (no such case has been reported in recent years).
Another main problem is the closed loop in the electoral system, the elected Assembly of Experts
elects the Supreme Leader
, so in theory he is elected indirectly by popular vote, but in practice the system does not satisfy the criteria for a free election since the Supreme Leader
appoints the members of the Guardian Council
who in turn vet the candidates for all elections including the elections for Assembly of Experts
. This loop limits the possible candidates to those agreeing with the views held by Supreme Leader
and he has the final say over all important issues.
Also, the fourth unchangeable article of constitution states that all other articles of the constitution and all other laws are void if they violate Islamic rules, and the Guardian Council
is given the duty of interpreting the constitution and verifying that all laws passed the parliament are not against Islamic laws. Many articles of constitution about political freedoms and minority rights (e.g. education in mother language for language minorities) have not been applied at all.
Other problems include the issues with the rights
of racial and religious minorities, influence and involvement of armed forces especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
in political activities, widespread corruption in the ruling elite, problems with security forces like police and militias like Ansar-e Hezbollah
, and corruption in Judiciary.
Public opinion of Iranians regarding the political system of 2011–2012
Polls in 2011 and 2012
in Iran by a number of respected Western polling organizations showed that a considerable majority of Iranians supported the system, including the religious institutions, and trusted the system's handling of elections (including the disputed presidential elections in 2009
). Some Iranians and political activists dispute the results of these polls arguing that the results of these polls cannot be trusted because people fear to express their real opinion and the limitations on the follow of information allows the state to control the opinion of people living in more traditional parts of the country. Some of these polling organizations have responded to these claims and defended their results as correctly showing the current[when?]
opinion of Iranians. The polls also showed a divide between the population living in large modern cities like Tehran
and people living in other more traditional and conservative parts of the country like rural areas and smaller cities.
Lebanon has traditionally enjoyed a confessional
The Lebanese constitution, doctored in 1926, was based on the French constitution and guaranteed liberty and equality for all its citizens. A large number of political parties with very different ideologies, are active in Lebanon, but most of them form political alliances with other groups of similar interests. Even though certain high-profile positions in the government and the seats in the parliament are reserved for specified sects, intense competition is usually expected of political parties and candidates.
In January 2015, the Economist Intelligence Unit
, released a report stating that Lebanon ranked the 2nd in Middle East
and 98th out of 167 countries worldwide for Democracy Index
2014, which ranks countries according to election processes, pluralism, government functions, political participation, political cultures and fundamental freedoms.
is a parliamentary democracy represented by a large number of parties, with universal suffrage for all citizens, regardless of race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation, who are of voting age.
Often recognized as the only functional democracy in Arabia and the Middle East, Israel has thrived since 1948 under an elective government and the leadership of prime ministers such as its inaugural, Ben Gurion
and its current Benjamin Netanyahu
Prior to the mass immigration of Israeli citizens to the region and the two-state solution there was no formal government or authority in the land known as Palestine
. Society operated without a democracy, monarchy or dictatorship; merely a conglomerate of tribes, clans, villages and communities headed by a select few elders known as "Sheikhs
" also transliterated Sheik, Sheyikh, Shaykh, Shayk, Cheikh, Shekh, Shaik and Shaikh.
The two state solution
drastically altered this and effectively displaced an overwhelming amount of Palestinians. As a result, the semi-political organization, Palestinian Liberation Organization
(PLO) was formed. Yasser Arafat
served as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization from 1969 to 2004 and is considered one of the most influential Palestinian leaders.
Over 100,000 people in Bahrain taking part in the "March of Loyalty to Martyrs
", honoring political dissidents killed by security forces.
The protests, uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, beginning on 18 December 2010, brought about the overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. Libya
was brought into a 6-month civil war
which brought about the end of Gaddafi
's 41-year rule. Bahrain
are experiencing uprisings. The uprising in Syria
led to full-scale civil war. Tunisia and Egypt have held elections that were considered fair by observers. Mohamed Morsi
was sworn in as Egypt's first president to gain power through an election on 30 June 2012; however, after protests against him in June 2013
, as well as a 48-hour deadline by the Egyptian Armed Forces
to respond to the protesters' demands that he did not comply with, Morsi was removed from office in July 2013. Morsi's Defence Minister
, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
, who served as a general in the Egyptian Armed Forces at the time, was responsible for announcing the overthrow on state television. Many other countries in the region are also calling for democracy and freedom, including: Algeria
, Saudi Arabia
. Research confirms that (in general) people in Islamic societies support democracy.
in the Middle East was pioneered by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
, who, though he himself had some authoritarian tendencies, helped establish the first modern Middle Eastern secular democracy in Turkey
. Arab Socialism has also fostered secularism, though sometimes in what has been seen as a less democratic context. Secularism is not the same as freedom of religion
, and secular governments have at times denied the rights of Islamists and other religious parties. This is essentially why Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
was such a polarizing figure among the Turks. Though he was a Muslim by name, the authoritarian decisions he made in the name of secularism tended to deviate from Islamic tradition.
As a result, a trend of a more liberal secularism supporting broader freedom of religion has developed recently in Turkey, while some Arab Socialist states have moved away from secularism to some extent, increasingly embracing religion, though many say without really increasing the rights of religious parties. Lebanon also is a secular state.
The state, democratization and the Middle East The reasons for the lack of democratization in the Middle East are outlined by analysts such as Albrecht Schnabel, who says that a strong civil society is required to produce leaders and mobilize the public around democratic duties, but in order for such a civil society to flourish, a democratic environment and process allowing freedom of expression and order is required in the first place. This theory, therefore, supports the intervention of outside countries, such as the U.S., in establishing democracy. "If domestic capacities are lacking, external support may be required. Externally supported creation of fragile, yet somewhat functioning institutions is meant to trigger the momentum needed to encourage the evolution of a functioning civil society. The latter will, after a few years of consolidation and post-conflict stability, produce the first wholly internally crafted government. At that time, external involvement, if still provided at that point, can cede."
Schnabel argues that democratization in the Middle East must come from both below and above, given that pressure from below will be pointless if the political leadership is opposed to reform, while top-down reform (which has been the norm in the Middle East) is not a fruitful endeavor if the political culture in society is not developed.
Other analysts draw different conclusions. Drawing from the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and Robert Putnam, these researchers suggest that independent, nongovernmental associations help foster a participatory form of governance. They cite the lack of horizontal voluntary association as a reason for the persistence of authoritarianism in the region.
Other analysts believe that the lack of a market-driven economy
in many Middle Eastern countries undermines the capacity to build the kind of individual autonomy and power that helps promote democracy.
Therefore, the relationship of the state to civil society is one of the most important indicators of the chances of democracy evolving in a particular country.
Poverty, inequality, and low literacy rates also compromise people's commitment to democratic reforms since survival becomes a higher priority. Some analysts point to MENA's saturation with Islam as an explanation for the region's failure to democratize.
Other analysts believe that the failure of democratization results from the power of the state. Inspired by Skopcol's work on revolution,
argues that democratic transition can only be carried out when the state's coercive apparatus lacks the will or capacity to crush opponents. Authoritarianism has been exceptionally robust in the MENA region because many of the states have proven willing and able to crush reform initiatives. Moreover, almost every Arab state has been directly involved in some form of international conflict over the past decades. Research suggests that conflict involvement has a direct influence on the country's prospects for democratization.
However, critics of these theories observe that some countries which experience many of these democracy-inhibiting factors are successful in their quest for democratization.
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