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Last Updated: 06/21/2013
Democracy in the Arab World
Majid Ahmed Salih

Majid Ahmed Salih discusses the major obstacles to democracy in the Arab world and why they should be overcome.

Concept of Democracy

The concept of democracy is one of the concepts commonly used in the world today, especially that all systems in contemporary political dictatorship, totalitarianism, and theocracy, trying to give themselves the name of democracy, and claim to represent the people, which has led to confusion and misunderstanding of the concept and its use but, there is a clear difference between those who claim the support and representation of the people, and thus legitimize the regime, and the reality and the practical application of democracy.

The word democracy is derived from the Greek origin (demos) which means people and (kratos), which means power, and this concept refers to the rule of the people by the people themselves, which is a philosophy of governance that the first and last word is for “the people”, either directly by themselves or indirectly through representatives elected for a certain period, according to free and fair elections.

Definitions of Democracy

Democracy can be defined in different forms across the history and I will select the most common definitions according to the Authors who defined it, but the most common one is:

“Democracy… is a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.”

For Aristotle, a democracy is “the rule of the poor and the rule of the majority.” He believes that a democracy is not a good form of rule because a rule of the majority, the rule of the poor, does not achieve the telos of the city-state (Aristotle, in Politics).

“Democracy is a political system in which different groups are legally entitled to compete for power and in which institutional power holders are elected by the people and are responsible to the people” (Tatu, 1997).

“Democracy is a system in which parties lose elections. There are parties: divisions of interest, values and opinions. There is competition, organized by rules. And there are periodic winners and losers” (Adam, 1991).

Types of Democracies

Since the rule of Birklas, the tyrants era in the cities of ancient Greece until the present time, the people as individuals, groups or movements have suffered a lot across the history to establish different types of democracy. These include the following:

  1. Sectarian Democracy
  2. Direct democracy
  3. Representative democracy
  4. Liberal democracy
  5. Depoliticized democracy
  6. Ideal democracy

It is valuable to mention that the most accepted form of democracy in contemporary society is the “representative democracy”, where the members of the community to elect members to serve as deputies or their representatives in political decision-making and the enactment of laws, legislation, and program and project management, and to play a role in the monitoring and accountability of the executive branch in order to serve the interests of the people and achieve their desires.

How the political system can be democratic

There are a set of factors or elements which indicate the extent of a democratic the political system, such as:

  1. Strong and independent parliament
  2. Active civil society organizations
  3. Strong political parties
  4. Free press
  5. Justice impartially and independence
  6. Political culture stresses such as the values ??of tolerance and respect the other opinion and its acceptance.

Citizen’s Rights under the Democracy

Robert Dahl, who is one of the most important theorists of Democracy argues that there are some requirements that must be available in the political system for the interest of citizens like :

  1. Freedom to form and join organizations.
  2. Freedom of expression.
  3. The right to vote.
  4. Eligibility for public office.
  5. Right of political leaders to compete to win support.
  6. Alternative sources of information.
  7. Free and fair elections.
  8. Institutions of government policy maker depends on the vote.

Obstacles in the way to democracy in the Arab world

The Arab world is witnessing popular uprisings and revolutions, which have swept through Iraq and Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and finally Syria, as what happened in the eighties in the countries of Eastern Europe (former socialist). The common purpose of these revolutions and uprisings has been to get rid of authoritarian regimes and establish democratic systems that respect pluralism and the right of difference, and ensure the peaceful transfer of authority, human rights and freedom of expression, etc.

Eastern Europe succeeded in their struggle; it remains to see if the Arab peoples achieve democracy. It is already clear that democracy does not come without a price, and does not materialize quickly and easily and smoothly in any country in the world without facing many problems and obstacles, including:

Habits, traditions and values inherited from the previous generations

The Arab culture – mainstream Islamic – has deep roots in the Arab societies, which are against democracy, liberalism, and freedom of the individual and the rights of women. The roots of this culture lead to nomadic life in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula.

A key feature of Bedouin culture is the absolute authority of the father in the family, even allowing him to kill other family members if he wishes, a power that corresponds to the tribal elder in his tribe, and, often, to an authoritarian Head of State.

The Arab state is an enlarged image of the tribe. Thus, the power of the authoritarian (chieftain) is transmitted genetically to his sons. Of course there are also monarchies in the Arab countries who have control over the state, in the sense of an absolute monarchy.

It is worth mentioning that tyranny has been maintained by Islamic clerics who were advocates for the dictators for their safety and livelihood, as a kind of priest class, or “preachers sultans” as Iraqi social leader Dr. Ali Al Wardi has called them. They have concocted a lot of words referring to the Prophet Mohammed in obedience to the ruling, even if an unjust tyrant took advantage from the Quran verses.

But the Arab peoples are not immune to what is going on in the world, especially in the era of the Internet and electronic media, which will continue to facilitate debate within and between political philosophies, and empower the people to demand a better form of government.

Political Islam

This factor is one of the most serious obstacles to democracy in the Arab world. According to Tabi Bassam, “Islamic fundamentalism or Islamism should not be equated with Islam, but it would be an eyewash to deny the fact that Political Islam is a major stream within the contemporary Islamic civilization” (Bassam, 2002).

The rising tide of political Islam and religious militancy of the Muslim Brotherhood Party and its branches in the Arab countries under different names such as: Hamas in Gaza and Algeria, and Nahda in Tunisia, and liberalization in other countries, etc., constitutes a major impediment to democracy. It is worth mentioning that the Muslim Brotherhood doctrine derived from the strict Wahhabi doctrine that believes in the practice of violence as a means for the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate state and the application of the principle of (Governance God) in the long run. ("Statement of atonement").

The seriousness of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt, lies in the fact that the organization has a lot of experience and knows the community and its problems well, and knows how to play the religious chord delicately to invest people's feelings of religious devotion to political purposes.

At the beginning of the revolution of the Egyptian people on January 25, 2011, the Brotherhood took the position of being neutral and did not participate until they were sure of success. When they began contributing to the protests, they were discretely severe; they did not raise familiar slogans (such as Islam is the solution, and the Prophet our leader, the Koran our constitution), but rode a wave of demand for systemic change, and talked a lot about democracy and human rights, and modernity. And then they called the Islamic preacher, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, from Qatar to reside with them and pray in Tahrir Square in Cairo, thus kidnapping the revolution of the Egyptian youth, the rightful owners of the Egyptian uprising, who have paid more than 800 dead and thousands injured.

Religious and sectarian conflicts

There is no doubt that these conflicts threaten democracy in the Arab world. In Egypt, for example, there are tensions between religious Islamists Salafis and Coptic Christians, with, most recently, bloody clashes in the neighborhood «Imbaba» famous district, which means that the Egyptian nation is in danger. Many bloody conflicts have occurred during the last thirty years between followers of the two religions in Egypt. As intensified after the January 25 revolution activities, Salafis seized control of some mosques by force, in addition to the destruction of the shrines of some saints.

Religious and sectarian conflicts have also caused confusion among Arab governments in their dealings with the uprisings in some other Arab countries, for example, at the time, the Arab League supported the uprising of the Libyan people against the Gaddafi regime, and supported NATO to enforce the no-fly over Libya, a sound position, and stood against the Bahraini popular uprising, and supported sending troops from the Gulf states to suppress them.

The absence of civil society organizations

Civil society organizations play an important role in supporting democracy by serving as mediator between the government and the people, and, along with the press and opposition parties, monitor power and watch its mistakes. But the problem here is that authoritarian regimes either cancel the civil society organizations, or dominate and make them a subsidiary of their party ruling, and so they lose their significance at this stage, and becomes just a spy network on the people, belonging to the organs of repressive power. Therefore, we must work on the establishment of civil society organizations (NGO) outside the hegemony of power, and open intensive educational sessions to raise the awareness of the people and the leaders of these organizations of their duties and role in a democratic system.

Illiteracy, ignorance and Poverty

It is unfortunate that illiteracy is rampant in the Arab countries, with approximately 40% among males, and 60% among females, not to mention the terrible shortage of knowledge and cultural illiteracy (see Report of the United Nations for 2002 and 2003 for “human development in the Arab world”).

According to the UN report: “While the Arab countries have the lowest level of dire poverty in the world, it remains the case that one out of every five people lives on less than $2 per day, according to World Bank estimates for the Middle East and North Africa.” (Stevenson, 2002)

This problem is an obstacle to democracy, as democracy means not only elections, but also freedom of expression and thought, organization, and etc. Therefore, the ruling class can take advantage of widespread illiteracy and ignorance among the people, including broadcasting rumors and false information to turn the public against their own interests and directing them against democracy, as happened in the recent strife in Embaba in Egypt, and the sectarian war in Iraq 2006, 2007 for example.

Oppression of women

Sam Richards stresses in the essay Should Women Fight Imperialism? that “Class exploitation and national oppression are products of imperialism. Thus, women who suffer class exploitation and national oppression have a vested interest in overthrowing imperialism in order to rid themselves of those two types of exploitation and oppression” (Richards, 1990).

Women constitute 50% of the community, but are persecuted in Arab countries and denied their rights; much a result of the system of intellectual and inherited customs and traditions. Thus, the energies of 50% of the people are strongly discouraged from participating in the political process and wider civil society, and this is further impeding democracy and the progress of society, politically, culturally and economically. The cultural level of any society is measured, among other criteria, by the status of women and their activities in various fields.

Crisis of the opposition parties

Most opposition parties are the other face of the same authoritarian powers in the Arab countries, and these parties are calling for democracy only as long as they are in the opposition, contributing to the disguise of tyranny as democracy. Also, most of these parties are related to “the founding leader” and their families. This property has not spared even the communist parties in the Arab countries, for example, Syrian Communist Party leader Khalid Bakdash, whose leadership moved to his wife Ms. Wissal Farha, as much as the leadership of the ruling Baath Party moved, after the death of its leader, Hafez al-Assad, to his son, Bashar al-Assad.

This succession in the leadership of the party, or the state, is an extension of inherited leadership of the clan and tribe in the patriarchal relations systems that we have mentioned above. Therefore, the Arab peoples’ plight is that dictators cannot be trained by their people to accept democracy, and those who govern through tyranny cannot give birth to democratic leaders, and so we find these people in front of a vicious circle (Hussein, 2008).

Conflicts between the forces of revolution

The recent popular revolts in the Arab countries have been driven by the youth, or what has been called the Internet generation. They make up a large proportion of the people, and they want a democratic system that guarantees them a free and dignified life. Mostly, these youth are non ideological, but their big problem they are not organized in political parties; most do not belong to any political party and lack the leadership to lead or unite around a political organization that crystallizes their ideas, and could allow them to achieve their common goals of building a democratic system and publicly responsible state institutions.

Therefore, I believe that the fragmentation of youth energies is not in favor of the fledgling revolution for democracy, and that the solution lies in the volunteer thinkers in liberal democratic theory to make great efforts to unify these young people into political organizations capable to block the Islamist parties that have used their organizational advantages to kidnap the revolution from its rightful owners.

Population explosion

It has been observed that the number of people in Arab countries is doubling every quarter of a century, jumping from about 28 million in the early twentieth century to nearly 350 million today, with one of the highest birth rates in the world. A corresponding decline in soil fertility and increasing salinity, water scarcity, and desertification crisis is unfolding. This “population explosion” combined with the deterioration of the economic situation may exacerbate conflicts between the components of one people, religious, sectarian, or ethnic group. The solution I support is to adopt a rigorous program of family planning, and launch an educational campaign to convince of people the usefulness of birth control, and the importance of women’s rights.

Followers of the authoritarian regime

Another obstacle facing democracy is that tyrannical regimes have adopted the equivalent of the famous British policy of "divide and rule", by giving preference to certain groups within society, showering them with honorable positions, government responsibilities, wealth, and other privileges, and to link their fate with the ruling families. As it is known these people have become hated and ostracized by the general population, the continuity of their privileges and safety requires the desperate defense of the tyrannical regime; if the autocrat will fail, his followers will be exterminated. This has been the case in the resistance of popular demonstrations against the authoritarian regimes in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya.

Summary and Conclusion

Democracy does not contradict any religion – including Islam – because it allows the freedoms of religion and conscience, and can be adjusted according to our circumstances and our cultural privacy. This is an important point.

As a new phenomenon for the Arab people, after a long lack of democratic traditions, a lack of independent civil society institutions, corruption and nepotism in government departments, the rise of political Islam, high population growth, economic crisis and unemployment, and religious, tribal, and political divisions, and many other factors, constitute obstacles in the way of transition from authoritarian rule to a democratic system.

These difficulties increase with the degree of severity of autocratic rule, both collapsed and ongoing. Moving to democracy is not easy or smooth, but in the end, must triumph.

What is happening in the Arab world now is not democracy, but rather the beginning of a long and arduous process of transition to democracy. What matters is that journey of a thousand miles has begun with the upheaval of youth demanding change. Despite the obstacles, the establishment of democratic systems must prevail.


Aristotile. (1995). Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Adam, P. (1991).Democracy and the Market. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bassam, T. (2002). The challenge of fundamentalism: Politicam islam and the new world disorder. (2nd ed.). London: University of California Press.

Dahl, R. (1989) Democracy and its Critics. Yale University Press.

Hussein, A. A. K. (2008, April). Problematic Liberal in the Arab World. Democracy, pp. 37 - 42.

Tatu, V. (1997). Prespect of Democracy. New York: Routledge.

Statement of Atonement Democracy, issued by the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Stevenson, R. (2002). Middle East catalogues Widening Inequality. United Nation

Richards, S. (1990, October). Should Women fighting the Imperialism.

Majid Ahmed Salih, UPEACE, MA in International Peace Studies 2013.