Friday, November 20, 2009

Would The Wall Ever Fall In The Arab World?



The whole world has been celebrating one of the most momentous events of the later half of the 20th century, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. What a triumph for the human spirit, for democracy, individual freedom, human dignity and personal freedom. The events that followed the collapse of that symbol of oppression were as exhilarating as the event itself. The fall of the wall set in motion a liberation tsunami that washed over all of Eastern Europe, parts of the Soviet Union and Central Asia.
It was only Africa and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) that have been “spared” the move towards liberal democracy. Not even Russia was able to resist the tide to democratize and introduce some reforms, albeit not as successful as in most of the other countries. Yet the gulag has been exposed and discredited and the hope is that it will never be able to make a come back.
Despite all of this the one region of the world that seems to be immune to the trend to liberalize and democratize seems to be the Arab World. In a sense the region that has resisted rather successfully until now the forces of liberation and freedom includes the whole of MENA with the possible exception of Turkey.


Many are by now familiar with the Arab Human Development Reports commissioned by UNDP but authored by independent Arab thinkers. The results of these studies have been anything but flattering.
The Arab countries as a group are home to over 300 million people and yet the total number of translated books every year is less than the books translated by Greece. It is not only education that is lacking but so is science and development. The Arab countries, as a group, managed to register in the US less than 400 patents when South Korea had registered in the same time period over 15,000 and Israel over 7000. A recent global happening illustrates the “backwardness” of the Arab masses best. When what promises to be one of the greatest discoveries, that of ARDI, a 4.5 million year old skeleton was announced the few mentions of this phenomenal discovery in the Arab press were devoted to the wrong interpretation that Darwin was wrong. They had missed the fact that ARDI is one of the most impressive pieces of solid evidence about the truth behind the Darwinian theory of evolution. Furthermore a survey conducted in Egypt revealed that less than 30 % of the public had even heard of the name Darwin. Such examples abound in every field. The fact of the matter is that the Arab region lags behind the rest of the world in practically every single area and field.
But many individuals of Arabic decent have succeeded in practically all fields and in all sorts of countries. Obviously this suggests that the fault is not that of the individual but it is of the oppressive, dictatorial backward exploitative political environment in each and every one of the 21 countries including the 22nd Occupied Palestinian Territory. A cursory look at the map of MENA from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf reveals countries that are ruled by absolute monarchs, Emirs, Sultans and dictators. Muamar Kaddafi has been in power for 40 years and is preparing the ground for his son, Egypt is about to become Mubarak land, Syria was inherited by a young optometrist, Yemen has had the same president for 30 years , Tunisia just reelected its president for the sixth term with an 87% plurality and the beat goes on. Lebanon is the only country that has a claim to democratic institutions but in reality they are just as hollow and rotten as those of its neighbours. Political feudalism masquerading as democracy.
It is obvious that in a wired up world and one with more travel and interactions than ever before the role of the authoritarian regimes is becoming more difficult. But the size of the Mukhabarat keeps on growing, and indiscriminate fear continues to spread in an attempt to thwart the inevitable move to personal freedom and democracy. An Arab Wall shall fall and when it does it shall sweep all throughout Mena to topple these regimes. That we can count on, that is how history unfolds. I just hope and pray that when the time comes we are mature and smart enough to have a velvet revolution.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

You do end up on a hopeful note but I do not think that the 30 somethings will get a chance to experience any form of democracy in the Arab World.

Nobody said...

Well, South Korea has staged the bulk of its economic miracle under a military regime. The same goes about such an economic superstar of Latin America as Chile. You seem to pin high hopes on democracy, but I am not sure that there is enough evidence to support these expectations.

Nobody said...

On a somewhat more cheerful note, the Arab world is not the only place successfully resisting the winds of change and freedom. The above mentioned central Asia actually features quite a few super oppressive regimes, one of them rivaling Orwell's 1984. Check Turkmenistan.

ghassan karam said...

Nobody,
As you well know no observation in the social science field is going to be 100% accurate:-) Heck if that was the case then we will have no problems because then the solution for any circumstance will become automatic. What is doubly frustrating about the Arab World is the lack of Democracy coupled by the lack of a meaningful accomplishments in any field including economics.
I am relatively familiar with Central Asia ; I have had college students from Turkmenistan, Kazakistan and Azerbijan. Again your example of countries that are in even more dire staright than the Arab World is true but my point and that of the Arab Development Report is that MENA does not have to be lagging the rest of the world as it does. I still believe that ultimately growththrough statist systems will hit a wall of inefficiency and waste just as it did in the exSoviet Union. That is one reason that I believe that Indias long term prospects are better than China if China is not to liberalize its political structure.

Nobody said...

ghassan karam said...
Nobody,
As you well know no observation in the social science field is going to be 100% accurate:-)


I am afraid the evidence is quite overwhelmingly against your thesis. It's not that it's just not 100% complying.

Again your example of countries that are in even more dire staright than the Arab World is true but my point and that of the Arab Development Report is that MENA does not have to be lagging the rest of the world as it does.

My point is not that it should not be lagging. But the idea that introduction of democracy can do the trick seems to me absolutely lacking any factual basis. For one thing the Arab world did experiment with some elections in Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria (before Baath took over). It just did not work. You can of course argue that these elections and democracies were not thorough enough, but it rather seems that some countries either have impossible ethnic compositions or are simply not mature for such experiments.

It's also very telling that the most impressive economic miracles of the post ww2 happened in monoethnic states, usually with little or no democracy. You are not going to tell me that Singapore's one party rule with a life long president is more democracy than what you have in Lebanon, aren't you?

I still believe that ultimately growththrough statist systems will hit a wall of inefficiency and waste just as it did in the exSoviet Union.

The Soviet Union was not a free market. For free market economies it indeed appears to be the rule that after a certain threshold of development is achieved, political liberalization happens inevitably. But the connection often seems to work in reverse - it's development that brings democracy and not the other way round.

ghassan karam said...

The economic literature is full of studies that show rather clearly that strong democratic regimes produce good governance which leads to less corruption and better economic performance. Are there exceptions, of course there are but the general trend seems to favour democracies.
BTW, Democracies also imply free markets. Don't jump to conclusions based on the above. I am not a big fan of either the neo liberals, nor of the Washington Consensus but
but I do favour a measured approach whereby the Government plays a major regulatory role.

Nobody said...

Ghassan

I had a glimpse of these studies and they are all deeply flawed because they fail to take into account that better economic performance invariably ends in democracy. But there is an issue of the cause and effect. It's enough to go through the list of the best performing countries after the ww2 to see the fallacy of all these myths about diversity and democracy.

It's very similar to these studies that are looking for the link between the poverty and demography. It just does not happen to these researchers, that demography is breeding poverty just as much as it works the other way round. Incidentally, in its latest articles the Economist seems to have finally admitted that the thing goes both ways, even though it stills falls behind those voices who asserted recently that low birth rates are not a result of economic development, they are the prerequisite.

Nobody said...

And when it comes to the Middle East, which countries do you think will benefit from more democracy? Syria, Iraq, Algeria? Do you want to have free elections in Jordan or Egypt? Should I explain to you who is going to win them? Lebanon is a case apart, but even in the case of Lebanon it's not sure that a more representative and non sectarian system can benefit the country instead of making it totally ungovernable.

Nobody said...

It's enough to go through the list of the best performing countries after the ww2 to see the fallacy of all these myths about diversity and democracy.

I mean of course countries in the third world

ghassan karam said...

Nobody,
I do not think that we are far apart on this issue especially that od poverty and demography. (I was going to mention it had you not done so yourself :-)).
I have often said that I do not believe in linear thinking and so I definitely agree that ultimately causality is not a one way flow. It is the interactions between the two point-counter point that results in a synthesis. So yes demography plays a role in perpetuating poverty . But then poverty also feeds into perpetuating a high fertility.

All the examples that you have given are of societies that do not practice real democracy. I do not want free elections only. That would be part of the package of a democratic structure but the more difficult part is the creation of a responsible citizen that takes her responsibilities seriously. Democracy is not easy. We need to hold the pols accountable but then we need to be well informed and responsible ourselves. In this regard no Arab state is ready for democracy. Another crucially important institution that is missing in the Arab world is that of a free and vibrant press that is willing to undertake investigative journalism and call the shots as they see them.
BTW, whether it is Japan, S. Korea or even China the "economic miracle" in each case has been the result of export led growth which was initiated by governmental measures to protect the domestic market. An excellent book about this subject is called "Kicking away the Ladder".

Nobody said...

South Korea, Japan and China belong to the same cultural unit. Replicating their methods elsewhere may be a recipe for a massive disaster. Frankly, I doubt that there exists any country else in the world that can survive the South Korean model of a closed domestic market dominated by a few oversized chaebols. In fact, it was tried in other countries and this model was indeed proved inapplicable in other parts of the world. In some respects, it rather looks as if the downsides of this model of development were balanced out by some cultural peculiarities of the nations in question, it's not that there was something special to this particular model of development.

I would formulate my point about democracy in the Arab world in these terms: Be careful with what you are wishing for. Many Arab regimes may look very unattractive, but alternatives may be massively worse. Tunisia is a good example. At the current rate of economic growth and sub replacement fertility rates, this country has a good chance to evolve into something better in a decade or two. But I can hardly think about one single Arab country where unleashing the Arab street on the wall can produce something better than chaos and a tremendous setback in terms of development. In the worst case it would end with another Iran or Gaza, at the best it would end with a dysfunctional political entity driven by a combination of ignorant and damn electorate and no less ignorant and populist politicians. Countries with a problematic ethnic composition may simply disintegrate. You may think that the current situation is very undesirable, but the alternatives are ugly to the extreme. As they say again, be careful with what you are wishing for.

Nobody said...

By the way, I had a post about that UN development report you mention in your post. This is what I think about it if you are interested...

Nobody said...

"ignorant and damn electorate" is of course "ignorant and dumb electorate"

ghassan karam said...

Nobody,
Are you familiar with the work of Sen ? If you are then you know his position in regards to famine; no famines seem to take place under democratic rules. That is something to think about, don't you think so?

Nobody said...

I am not familiar with Sen but I do understand the point. My reply would be that for one, as I said, "But the connection often seems to work in reverse - it's development that brings democracy and not the other way round." Another question is whether Sen examined other cases, say, when democracies failed for example? Say, the same Chile reached the state of total disintegration under Allende before Pinochet took over and his Chicago boys started economic reforms. How does Sen account for such cases?

Or the same Syria that was experimenting with democracy for quite a while after winning independence? In fact, on quite a few occasions military governments were taking over in the third world because civil ones proved themselves massively not up to the task.

It's not enough to demonstrate the link between famine and democracy, never mind that I am not sure that Sen's point holds water. You should also deal with the link between liberalization and civil wars, or just failed attempts at democratization. You should also show that it's democracy that eradicated famine, and not the absence of famine that produced democracy. Say, Spain used to know famine and the stuff, but by the time Franco died and democracy triumphed, this country was already well developed to the point that no famine was possible.

Nobody said...

You know, I am not making some abstract argument just for the sake of it. There was an attempt at free elections in Algeria that almost ended with the Muslim Brothers taking over the country, a civil war followed. You have Iraq where removal of Saddam's regime triggered a massive civil war. Without Americans staying there, there would be no Iraq left by now. Then you have Lebanon which after its velvet revolution promptly reverted to its state of semi disintegration. You have Hamas in Gaza. You have Bahrain and Egypt where whatever seats contested in more or less free manner they all fell into the hands of Muslim Brothers, Salafis and local Shia fundamentalists/nationalists.

Say, the regime of Mubarak and Assad falls tomorrow. Give me your idea of what happens next.

ghassan karam said...

Nobody,
I feel that we need to start this thread all over again with some rather well defined positions because , as I indicated in an earlier post, I do not think that we are that apart but we seem to using the same terms to mean different things.
There is a famous case in economics to illustrate this point that goes by the name of The Cambridge Controversy. This was a discussion between economista at Cambridge England and thise at Cambridge USA. This discussion was heated at times and went on for years until someone, I believe, it could have been Joan Robinson in England who noticed that the argument was simply due to the fact that each side meant something different when they applied the term capital :-)
In our small "Controversy" I believe that we are using the term democracy to mean slightly different things. You see my quick response to most of the countries that you have mentioned including Lebanon, is that none of them is a democracy because democracy goes much further than elections. It implies institutions that protect the rights of the other, it implies the right to dissent, it implies free press etc...
Democracy is not easy. One needs to cultivate it over time.One cannot transform a society based on rejecting the other and on intolerance into a democracy just by holding free elections. Democracy must be able to prevail after the elections.
I have no problems whatsoever if the Ikhwan are to take over legitimately in Egypt provided they are willing to act as responsible democratsi.e. protect the rights of the opposition to demonstrate, speak their mind and carry on opposing the Ikhwan without fear of retaliation. To replace the authoritarian Mubarak or the dictatorial Assad with an eqully dictatorial regime will be pointless because then we would have just changed the source of the injustice and inequality.
That is why it is the responsibility and obligation of Mubarak et al.. to educate the public, be transparent, have free elections, respect human rights etc...

BTW, I consider Sen to be one of the most creative intellectuals in the world and when he wrote about famine he was describing basically the Indian experience. Actually in his more recent work he is the one who is most responsible for the HDI and other measures of poverty that are not based exclusively on income. Access and opportunity are crucially important for these measures. I mention this only to stress that access and opportunity are often obstructed under non democratic systems.

ghassan karam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nobody said...

I agree with your differentiating between free elections and civil infrastructure necessary to support democracy. I am just saying that the backwardness of the Arab world is mostly not a consequence of the lack of democracy, it's the cause of it. In practical terms, one would prefer many Arab regimes to keep going as they are, in particular, where, like in Tunisia, economic reforms and development are under way.

The thing is that I tend to partly agree with this part:

It is obvious that in a wired up world and one with more travel and interactions than ever before the role of the authoritarian regimes is becoming more difficult. But the size of the Mukhabarat keeps on growing, and indiscriminate fear continues to spread in an attempt to thwart the inevitable move to personal freedom and democracy.

I agree that the Arab Wall may soon come under attack in quite a few places. I am just saying that you don't want to see it happening. Some countries of the Fertile Crescent feature such an impossible etnnic sectarian composition that they can only disintegrate. In other places sending the Arab Street to storm the Wall will end in chaos, civil wars, Islamic regimes and a massive setback in terms of development. We are not dealing here with a linear process.

I also have reservations about this:

But many individuals of Arabic decent have succeeded in practically all fields and in all sorts of countries. Obviously this suggests that the fault is not that of the individual but it is of the oppressive, dictatorial backward exploitative political environment in each and every one of the 21 countries including the 22nd Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Though my reservations are not about Arabs as such but Islam. I do think that Muslim societies are culturally predisposed to struggle to adapt to the modern world. I think it's oversimplification to reduce it all to democracy, let alone that we seems to agree that it's currently not an option in many places.

 

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