Here’s a fun fact, two thirds of the world governments are now some form of Democracy. Out of the twenty-two Arab States exactly zero are democratic.
So what is it. Why are these Arab Governments “keeping the brothers down?” Many people will tell you that it is because of Islam. But in this case it is a convenient excuse. The reason for the lack of democracies is because of income disparity. A small group of people are very,very rich and the vast majority of the country is very, very poor. The small group of people who have tons of money use Islam (and inciting hatred against the evil Zionists) to keep down the rest of the population “down.” Sharing power with the population would mean risk losing their ill-gotten “nest egg.”
Whenever I tell someone I am at work on a book of profiles of Arab democrats, I get the same response: “That will be a short book.” To this I reply: “Don’t underestimate my capacity for wordiness.”
In fact, there are more than enough genuine democrats in the Arab world to fill my book, but not enough to change their region, where the influence of democracy is shockingly weak. Out of 171 non-Arab states in the world, the number of democracies is 123, or 72 percent. Of the 22 Arab states, the number of democracies is zero.
This calculation uses annual data compiled by Freedom House, which rates each country in the world as “free,” “not free” or “partly free.” It also identifies which countries are “electoral democracies” and which are not. All of the “free countries” are electoral democracies, as are some of the “partly free” ones. This category includes countries that have begun to hold free elections but lack other hallmarks of a free society, such as a reliable court system. In Freedom House’s counting, countries that hold mock elections, such as Egypt or Russia, do not pass muster as “electoral democracies;” whatever other defects they may have, only countries that choose their governments in honest, competitive elections can win this designation. The fact that nearly two-thirds of all the countries in the world today elect their leaders bespeaks a revolutionary change in the norms of government over the past 30-odd years. And it puts the Arab lag into stark relief. What accounts for it? Economic backwardness explains the problem in part. Generally, the most powerful correlate of democracy is higher per capita income. The overwhelming majority of countries where citizens enjoy an annual income of $5,000 or more are democracies. Few Arab countries have reached this level. But this factor still falls short as an explanation. For one thing, while a few Arab countries with wealth from oil or commerce have passed the $5,000 mark, none of them are electoral democracies (although a few, including Bahrain and Kuwait, as well as non-oil countries such as Jordan, are ranked among the “partly free.”)
Furthermore, although much of the Arab world is poor, it is not as poor as sub-Saharan Africa, where per capita income is less than half of that of the Arab states. Yet democracy has begun to take hold in sub-Saharan Africa, where half of the 48 countries are electoral democracies. Islam may be a second explanatory factor. Of the 47 states in the world with Muslim majorities, only nine, or 19 percent, are democracies. On the other hand, of 146 non-Muslim states, 114, more than three-quarters, are democratic. The impression of tension between Islam and democracy is reinforced by the fact that the only historic example of an Arab democracy is Lebanon, between the time it achieved independence in 1945 and the time it imploded into civil war in 1975, largely due to the pressure of foreign forces. What distinguished Lebanon in the Arab world was that, during its democratic era, it was largely a Christian-led nation. Yet, even if Islam discourages democracy, it does not pose an absolute barrier. On the contrary, of the 25 non-Arab states with Muslim majorities, including Indonesia and Malaysia, more than one-third (nine) have democratically elected governments. That is far lower than the percentage of democratic non-Muslim countries, but still high enough to disprove any assertion that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Moreover, several of these Islamic majority states are also desperately poor–Mali, Senegal and Nigeria, for instance–so we may rule out the combination of Islam and poverty as the culprit. What, then, is the missing variable? For this I have no data but only a speculation based on observation and reinforced by conversations with many Arab friends. I believe that the 60-year Arab obsession with Israel (which is, by the way, the only Middle Eastern country that Freedom House considers “free”) is the key factor–perhaps the most important one–blocking the political development of Arab states. It explains why the Middle East, of all the regions of the world, has remained largely untouched by the global trend of democratization. We can see this in the bold assertions of Arab dictators who say that they cannot liberalize now because their countries must be strong in the face of the Zionist enemy. But we can also see it among reformers. In 2005, a new protest movement called the Egyptian Movement for Change, or Kifaya, emerged in Egypt. Kifaya means “enough.” But aside from demanding an end to Mubarak’s rule, what was Kifaya’s program? First and foremost, it sought to reverse Egypt’s largely constructive relationships with Israel and the United States. Democratization has occurred where people have poured their energies into fighting for democracy, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. Think of Walesa, Havel, Mandela, Yeltsin. For that matter, think of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King. The political energies of the Arab world, however, have been siphoned into the endless quest for redress of the great humiliation of Jewish sovereignty in the heart of the Arab region. This obsession has cost the Jews a lot. It has cost the Arabs even more.