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The Middle East’s Democracy Gap


Director Robert Springborg London Middle East Institute.

The democracy gap graphically described in the landmark 2002 UNDP Arab Human Development Report persists.

Four years after the landmark 2002 Arab Human Development Report highlighted the yawning gap between global democracy and its comparative absence in the Arab world, that gap remains. Despite promises of reform by most Arab leaders, expenditure in the hundreds of millions of dollars on Arab democratization projects by bilateral and multilateral donors, and an increasingly assertive Arab media, authoritarian government persists. By even the least demanding definition of democracy, which is that of a change of the ruling executive through a free and fair election, only Palestine and Lebanon even partially qualify. An overview of the form of Arab government reflects its underlying authoritarian character. It is the only region of the world in which ruling, as opposed to reigning monarchies, continue to prosper in significant numbers. All of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states, plus Jordan and Morocco, are ruled by monarchs. Thus eight out of the twenty two Arab states are so governed. Moreover, the distinction between Arab monarchies and republics has steadily eroded as a result of longevity of presidential rule and successions within incumbents’ families. Mu`amar Qadhafi, who was never elected, has ruled Libya for thirty seven years. Saddam ruled Iraq for thirty five years. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Salih was in September re‐elected for seven years, which means that if he serves out this term he will have been President for thirty five years. Husni Mubarak of Egypt was re‐elected last year for another six year term after having already served more than twenty four years. Habib Bourguiba ruled Tunisia for thirty years and his successor, Ben Ali, has been in the saddle for nineteen more. Hafiz al Asad, who was in power in Damascus for thirty years, succeeded in handing the office over to his son Bashar, who is now in his sixth year of rule. Mubarak, Qadhafi and Salih are all working assiduously to assure the same for one of their offspring, something which Lebanon’s Rafiq Hariri managed to do posthumously. The Arab world, in sum, not only has a higher percentage of monarchies than any other region of the world, it also has the longest average tenure of heads of state. No other region of the world is so characterized by rule by one man and his family than is the Arab world. Another ubiquitous and anti‐democratic feature of Arab governments is that they are too large and top heavy in the executive branch. The ratio of government spending to GDP averages about one third, which is some ten per cent above the average for developing countries as a whole. Arab governments’ disproportionate claim on finances is matched by their domination of labour markets. The wage bill constitutes on average about one third of total government spending, which, according to the IMF, is some four per cent higher than the average for all developing countries. Some particularly egregious examples reflect the broader situation. In Qatar and Kuwait, ninety five and ninety per cent, respectively, of nationals in the labour force are employed by government. Even in the comparatively populous Arab states civil services are bloated. In Egypt, for example, it accounts for some six million of a total non‐agricultural labour force of about eighteen million. The United Kingdom, in comparison, has some 500,000 civil servants out of a population that is only some 17 per cent less than Egypt’s. The natural result of large and powerful executives is that the other branches of government are politically marginal and lacking capacity to perform their constitutional and legal roles, limited as those are. Only two Arab parliaments—those of Palestine and Kuwait—have succeeded in forcing cabinet changes, the most dramatic evidence of parliamentary power. A better indicator of the day to day relationship between executive and legislative branches is the degree to which the latter is able to oversee the business of the former, as contained in the government’s budget. Most Arab parliaments have yet to achieve the first stage of such oversight, which is to force the executive to produce in timely fashion sufficiently detailed budgets for parliamentary review of them to be meaningful. The global Open Budget Index for 2006, recently released by Washington’s Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, ranks 59 countries according to their budgetary transparency, including five from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Two of those five, Egypt and Morocco, “provide scant or no information to citizens,” the lowest of the Index’s five categories. Algeria provides “minimal information,” which places it in the second to bottom category, while Jordan and Turkey provide “some information to citizens,” which places them in the middle category.1 All of these MENA countries are outperformed by such states as Botswana, Brazil, Peru, and Romania.

Legal‐judicial systems are unable to impose the rule of law because they are heavily influenced by the executive branch, typically through ministers of justice and because of deficiencies in their capacities, which result, among other things, in extensive case backlogs. Justice delayed is justice denied. In Egypt, for example, the average civil case lasts for more than six years before a court hands down a verdict, implementation of which in any event is uneven, in part because of corruption among bailiffs and other court officers, and in part because the executive is reluctant to serve at the behest of courts. The over‐centralisation of Arab executive branches is reflected in the lack of autonomy and capacity of local government. Nowhere in the Arab world does it have extensive powers of the purse and nowhere are elections to its representative bodies conducted without extensive involvement and manipulation by the executive branch. Virtually all employees at the local level in Arab governments report not to a branch of local government, but to a central ministry. These manifold deficiencies in the form of government in the Arab world are reflected in measures of democracy and governance. As Figure One indicates, of the world’s developing regions, Freedom House ranks the Arab world the least free on the combined scores of personal and political freedoms (each scale is from one to six so the two combined are twelve; the higher the score, the less freedom). The second least free region is the MENA as a whole.

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Of the World Bank’s various measures of governance quality, Voice and Accountability is the one which inter‐correlates most highly. It is the strongest predictor of the ability of government to control corruption, for example. Figure Two reveals that on World Bank rankings, the MENA provides dramatically fewer opportunities to its citizens for voice and accountability than does any other region. Arab and MENA governments are not just comparatively undemocratic and unaccountable, but they are also poor at delivering benefits to their citizens. The UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite of health/longevity and education measures. If a country is performing as predicted by its comparative level of wealth, its score when its rank on HDI is subtracted from its rank on GDP per capita should be zero. If it is performing better, it should have a positive score, if worse, a negative one. As Figure Three, which is based on World Bank data indicates, only Sub‐Saharan African countries are developing their human resources less effectively than are the MENA countries, given their respective income levels. And again, the Arab world underperforms the MENA as a whole, reflecting the fact that Turkey, Iran and Israel outperform the Arab countries on average.

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Arab and MENA governments are also not user‐friendly for businesses. The International Finance Corporation ranks 175 countries according to the ease of doing business within them. As Figure Four reveals, seven Arab countries are in the top half of the ranking and seven, as well as Iran, are in the bottom half. This seems to suggest an adequate if not good performance on this measure by Arab and MENA countries. The average rank of the fifteen MENA countries listed, however, is over 100, whereas the median rank is 87.5. More importantly, if one considers the populations of the countries listed, the outcome is substantially more negative. Those Arab countries in the top half have a total native population of about 30 million, while those countries in the bottom half have approximately ten times as many inhabitants. Thus the vast majority of Arabs and Iranians live where doing business is more difficult than in the majority of countries in the world.

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Progress toward a market‐based economy and democracy as measured by the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, which is based on several economic and political variables, revealed in 2006 that only one Arab country was in the upper half of the 113 countries ranked. That country was Bahrain, the population of which is approximately one million. Nine of the thirteen Arab countries ranked were in the bottom two of the five categories. Finally, as Figure Five demonstrates, the MENA outspends all other developing regions on the military, presumably one of the reasons why its comparative ranking on human development is so low. On the face of it, high spending on the military signals the likelihood of poor governance and lack of democracy. Paradoxically, this high spending also correlates with high levels of violence, indicating that MENA citizens are probably not reaping many benefits from governmental expenditures on the military. A recently released study by the RAND Corporation reveals that in terms of terrorist incidents and numbers killed by terrorist acts the MENA is far and away the most dangerous region in the world. 10,200 people were killed there by terrorists in the period 2002‐2005, with the next highest region being that of all of South, East and Northeast Asia, where 3,600 people were killed in terrorist incidents. The comparative population densities of these two regions implies that a MENA citizen is about fifteen times more likely to be killed by terrorists than is a person living in South, East or Northeast Asia, the next most dangerous part of the globe.

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Other forms of political violence are just as omnipresent. Civil wars have occurred in the last twenty years in Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Yemen.

Major insurrections have broken out in Egypt, Syria and Turkey. Cross border wars have occurred between Lebanon and Israel, Iran and Iraq, Libya and Chad. In sum, comparatively high expenditures on MENA militaries correlate not with peace and security, but with war, terrorism and death. It may not be totally unrelated that the Arab countries have the lowest female participation rates in politics of any world region, with an average of only six per cent of Arab parliamentarians being women. In Britain, where the rate is low by European standards, twenty eight per cent of the members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords are women. The form, content and output of Arab and MENA government thus remain far below global averages, even for developing countries, some four years after the issuing of the 2002 Arab Human Development Report. The impressions of citizens there reflects these objective realities. A recent Telhami/Zogby poll revealed that a majority of Arabs believe that the Arab world is less democratic now than it was at the start of the Iraq war in 2003. It is hardly surprising in these circumstances that the Islamist political tide continues to rise, threatening to inundate the entire region.

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