The state alone cannot be blamed for “sham Arab democracy”

Rami Khouri has a great piece about the effects that The State has on Arab democracy in the Beirut-based the Daily Star. Khouri argues that states in the Arab world are designed for a top-down approach to governance whereas the traditional legal and political institutions of the Arab world are bottom-up (“indigenous” as well as “inclusive”) creations. The inability of Arab states to properly funnel this tension is, Khouri argues, responsible for the lack of democracy in the Arab world. Unfortunately Khouri’s piece fails to explore two complementary strands of thought.

1. The bottom-up approach to democratic governance is the only way that democracy can actually be democratic, and it took a long time to get to this point in the parts of the world that actually have democracy.

The West was able to reach this bottom-up democracy by recognizing that democracy is not an end, but rather a byproduct of a legal framework that protects individual rights and especially the property rights of individuals. Revolutionaries in Western Europe did not demand free and fair elections; they demanded liberty. Reformers in the Arab world (including Khouri) seem to treat democracy as if it were an achievable goal without having to liberalize Arab economies (domestically as well as internationally) first. Democracy is a byproduct of institutions that protect individual rights, not a catalyst that will enable states to include these rights into a post-election legal framework.

2. Like the state itself, IGOs such as the United Nations bear responsibility for the lack of democracy in the Arab world. IGOs legitimize the state as it is in the Arab world. In order to understand this argument it is useful to reach back into history a century ago and reacquaint yourself with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Sykes-Picot agreement between Great Britain and France (and, initially, czarist Russia). You can read up on the developments of these two events, but for the purpose here it is important to remember that Paris and London drew up borders that more or less followed the pattern of Istanbul, and that these borders eventually became sacrosanct internationally upon the UN’s recognition of Arab states’ sovereignty.

By recognizing the legitimacy of arbitrary states and the sanctity of their borders, the UN contributes directly to the sham elections and bloodshed that have occurred as the rival, bottom-up factions Khouri identifies seek power through gaining control of the capitals of these states.

Because these states are legitimized by the UN, the rival factions can simply seize control of a capital and automatically gain leverage over their domestic and international enemies (Muammar Gaddafi, for example, was a political nobody before his ascension to power in Tripoli). Thus Arab dictators and would-be dictators are engaged in a form of rent-seeking when they attempt to obtain power through Arab capitals. In some respects, the United Nations and other IGOs have simply served to further the imperial ends of the British and French in the Middle East after World War I.

Is everybody with me? Disparate factions in Arab states seek to control their own regional territories while simultaneously seeking to stave off the influence of the capital if their man is not in power (pretty standard fare worldwide, actually). This tension – between resisting influence and seeking to exert it through governing a capital city – is driven by the realization that capturing the rent provided by IGOs will lead to leverage over enemies. This, in turn, not only keeps nationalist sentiment in Arab states strong but also ensures that only a strong man will be capable of holding these states together.

Now the nationalism that glues these failed Arab states together is one that is largely acknowledged, but the necessity of a strong man to hold these states together gets less respect.

Just think though: Strong men can earn the rent that Arab states get from IGOs by more easily being able to eliminate or suppress factions that do not wish to go along with renting the services that IGOs provide (loans, military support, etc.).

A democracy, on the other hand, is designed to incorporate as many factions within a society as possible into the political framework of a state. Democracies are less predictable than autocracies. For IGOs – created by, and for, already established democracies – this lack of predictability is unwelcome.

It is important to note that there is no explicit animosity directed towards Arab democracy from IGOs. The inability of IGOs to incorporate fledgling Arab democracies is built in to their systems. IGOs are always at the forefront of calling for free and fair elections in Arab states, for example, but institutions like the UN were implemented for a different world. Great Britain and France had overseas colonies in 1945. There were two Germanies when the UN was chartered and no academic programs devoted to exploring “post-socialism.”

Delving into why IGOs are structurally unable to support democratic initiatives in the Arab world is far beyond the scope of this post, and I think Khouri’s focus on the failures of the state is a big step in the right direction. However, if frustrated reformers wish to better understand the plight of democracy in their societies, it will not be enough to blame the autocrats who have been smart enough and ruthless enough to game the international state system that Arab states participate in.

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