News

"Tarek Masoud on Democracy in the Middle East"

June 4, 2015

The HKS Office of Communications conducted an interview with Sultan of Oman Associate Professor of International Relations Tarek Masoud on democracy in the Middle East. Read an excerpt below, and find the full interview and accompanying video here.

"Democracy remains a rare commodity in the Middle East as the promise of the Arab Spring has given way to authoritarian retrenchment, democratic breakdown, and civil war. Countries that once seemed promising terrain for democracy now feature clashes between citizens and governments, military domination, and the imprisonment of activists and journalists. Sultan of Oman Associate Professor of International Relations Tarek Masoud helps to explain why the region has taken a turn for the worse.

Q: Why is there so little democracy in the Middle East?

Masoud: In 2011 and 2012, a series of uprisings took place in the Arab world that led many of us to expect the end of authoritarianism in much of the region. In the end, those protests only led to regime change – or more correctly, the resignation of a dictator – in four different countries. In Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for more than 20 years, fled as a result of mass protests. A few weeks later, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for 30 years, followed suit. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled for 42 years, put up more of a fight, but he too was driven from office after NATO intervened.  And in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, another longstanding dictator, also finally resigned.  All of these leaders had to leave as a result of popular protest. And though protests were crushed elsewhere – particularly in Syria – there was certainly a reason to believe that these countries at least were on the road to democracy

Now, surveying the landscape of the Arab world four years later, it looks like very few of those hopeful episodes have actually translated into something better. Of all of the countries where protests took place, only one can be called a functioning democracy. And that is Tunisia, where there have been two democratic elections in which the result has generally been respected by the majority of the population and in which the new government has actually been able to govern. In Egypt, there was an election in 2011 that brought in a new legislature, but that was subsequently dissolved by the courts. Egyptians then elected a new president, but he was subsequently overthrown by the military. The story is similarly grim elsewhere. Both Libya and Yemen are in states of civil war.  They look much more like Syria than they do like Tunisia or even Egypt.

So, the question is, why has the Arab Spring not translated into democracy for most of the Arab world?  I believe the answer is that the conditions necessary for democracy to take root generally were not present in most Arab societies. A country like Egypt, for example, is underdeveloped. Civil society in Egypt was weak. The Egyptian state has long been weak, unable to solve its citizens’ problems.  So after the revolution, as the economy continued to crumble, people very quickly began to lose patience with the government, and they began to attribute their misfortunes to this new democratic system.

Elsewhere, the terrain was even less propitious. Libya and Yemen have long been riven by tribalism – it was too much to hope that they would go from authoritarianism to democracy without first passing through a long period of struggle in which previously suppressed and oppressed groups made claims on power and resources."

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For more information on this publication: Please contact Middle East Initiative
For Academic Citation:"Tarek Masoud on Democracy in the Middle East".” News, , June 4, 2015.