The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective

Eva Bellin
2004 Comparative politics  
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more » ... tor.org. Why have the Middle East and North Africa remained so singularly resistant to democratization? While the number of electoral democracies has nearly doubled since 1972, the number in this region has registered an absolute decline.1 Today, only two out of twenty-one countries qualify as electoral democracies, down from three observed in 1972.2 Stagnation is also evident in the guarantee of political rights and civil liberties. While the number of countries designated free by Freedom House has doubled in the Americas and in the Asia-Pacific region, increased tenfold in Africa, and risen exponentially in Central and East Europe over the past thirty years, there has been no overall improvement in the Middle East and North Africa.3 Aggregate scores in 2002 differ little from 1972. Fifteen countries are designated not free, five partly free, and only one free (see Table 1 ). While a few countries, notably Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, and Yemen, have registered noteworthy progress toward political liberalization in the past decade, overall the vast majority of countries has failed to catch the wave of democratization that has swept nearly every other part of the world. Explanations suggest a litany of regional failures. First, civil society is weak and thus is an ineffective champion of democracy. Labor unions are empty shells; businessmen's associations lack credible autonomy; nongovernmental organizations lack indigenous grounding. The weakness of associational life undermines the development of countervailing power in society that can force the state to be accountable to popular preferences. It also contracts the opportunities for citizens to participate in collective deliberation, stunting the development of a civic culture, that essential underpinning of vibrant democracy.4 Second, the commanding heights of the economy remain largely in state hands. Despite nearly two decades of experimentation with structural adjustment, the public sector continues to account for a major share of employment and GNP generation in most countries.5 This legacy of statist ideologies and rent-fueled opportunities undermines the capacity to build autonomous, countervailing power to the state in society. Third, people are poor; literacy rates are low; and inequality is significant. It is 12221 2002/3
doi:10.2307/4150140 fatcat:2pses4yd25hlnhd2vw5yqk7r5e