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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 5

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Democratization in the Arab World?

In the wake of last year's terrorist attacks on the United States, the absence of democratization in the Arab world suddenly became a focus of international attention, but it has long been noted by scholars of democracy. One of the most striking features of the Third Wave of democratization has been its failure to touch the Arab world. Many saw hopeful signs of incipient democratic transitions during the global regime upheavals of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but today the 16 Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa, alone among the world's major regions or cultural zones, lack so much as a single democracy. Eight of these states are governed by monarchs. Of the remainder only Algeria, Lebanon (which is under Syrian domination), and Syria have experienced a turnover of executive power during the past decade, and in the last case power passed from father to son.

Yet as this set of essays demonstrates, Arab regimes vary in the extent of political pluralism, civic freedom, and electoral competition that they permit, as well as in the nature and ideology of the ruling authority. Some are total autocracies, with what Daniel Brumberg, in his concluding essay to this section, calls "harmonic" ruling ideologies that rule out any competing political values or visions. Others allow limited political competition, but they oscillate within the firm boundaries of a "reform game" whose purpose is to maintain authoritarian rule rather than to foster real and sustainable democratic change.

The essays on individual Arab states that follow suggest that they are moving in different directions. Egypt, the most populous Arab country and perhaps the most influential in the region, is embarked on a path of "deliberalization," and Yemen has slammed the door on what seemed in the mid-1990s to be one of the Arab world's most interesting experiments in democracy. On the other hand, there are trends toward political opening in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, and even in Saudi Arabia (though beginning there from a very low base). In Algeria, where "conflict fatigue" has set in after more than a decade of brutal civil strife, there may now be some chance for democratization. Yet Morocco, probably the Arab state where there has been the greatest progress toward liberalization, still seems far from real democracy.

So the picture is indeed a mixed one, not wholly lacking in grounds for optimism. Yet as Brumberg concludes, the political openings experienced so far in the Arab world have not yet offered a genuine path, however tortuous, to democracy, but have remained within the confines of liberalized autocracy.


—The Editors



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