Research: “pacted transitions” to democracy in Arab states

In “Democracy in the Arab Region: Getting There from Here (Middle East Policy, vol. 12, no. 2, Summer 2005, 28-35) Alan Richards discusses prospects for “pacted transitions” to democracy in Arab states.

My realistic approach and methodology put me away from adopting the “pacted transitions” term of this article, but it is useful to highlight the diversity of thoughts in this domain.

The following is the text of this article:

Democracy in the Arab Region: Getting There from Here

Alan Richards

Dr. Richards is professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.1

For a printable pdf version of this article, click here.

Successive Arab Human Devel- opment Reports have extensively documented the "freedom and good-governance deficit" in the Arab region. There is likewise consensus that a "democracy deficit" both exists and contributes to the other deficits that have been the focus of previous reports. Although democracy is no panacea for the problems of the Arab (or any other) region, there are excellent reasons to suppose that more accountable governance would certainly help, and there are firm grounds to support transitions to more democratic governance simply for their own sake.

A "democracy deficit" contributes very strongly to the "freedom deficit," although, as we all know, democracies can also repress dissent and behave intolerantly. After all, freedom, however conceived, may be threatened not only by the actions of a repressive state apparatus, but also by strong demands for conformity from civil society. A transition to democracy would very likely reduce the first threat to freedom, which would be a huge contribution to the peoples of the region and, indeed, to everyone in the world.

It also seems clear that a democratic transition would make a significant contribution to "development as freedom."2 By enhancing accountability, it would also very plausibly improve economic governance and stimulate investment. It could, for the same reason, improve environmental protection and the sustainable growth of the "wealth of nations." It would almost certainly be an improvement over the current scene, in which corrupt elites enrich themselves while plundering natural capital, neglecting human-capital formation by the poor, and impeding physical-capital formation by less privileged economic agents.

Students of democracy employ various perspectives on democratization. Some focus on the meaning of fundamental principles such as freedom, equality, participation and legitimacy. Others concentrate on the institutional structures that are needed, such as an independent judiciary, a functioning parliament and human-rights laws. Still others examine the role and functioning of "civil society" in stimulating the demand for democracy and freedom. Those electing to study civil society typically try to explain what the concept means, why it matters, how it is now faring, and what can be done to strengthen it now and in the immediate future. All such studies are valuable in helping us better understand democratic institutions. They tell us much about the question "What is democracy?" They also tell us something about "Who wants democracy?" To use an economic metaphor, they tell us about the demand for democracy.

They tell us rather less, however, about two other, critical questions: "Who will effect a transition to more democratic governance?" and "How will this transition happen?" They tell us little, in short, about how and by whom democracy is supplied. Now, in an important sense, such questions cannot, indeed should not, be answered a priori. They cannot be so answered for the region as a whole, simply because of the specificity of national experiences and the vast complexity of events such as democratic transitions. Large-scale historical changes of any kind are the product of "conjunctures," the simultaneous occurrence of many disparate forces. The complexity and indeterminacy of such changes are well-reflected in the fact that historians and political analysts continue to debate, for example, the causes of the French, Russian, Mexican and Iranian revolutions. They likewise dispute, and will continue to contest, why and how democracy came to Eastern Europe, Korea, Chile and so on. Such questions also should not be answered in advance, because, after all, the self-selection of who undertakes democratic transitions, and how they do this, is itself part of the democratic process. Such a process, by its very nature, can only unfold with the freely given participation of the relevant social actors.

Nevertheless, there remains a place for analyzing both the questions of "Who?" and "How?" One can sketch some broad answers to these questions without presuming to provide definitive answers or preempt the actual political process. One may simply point to a few important forces and issues which, in the analyst's judgment, require the attention of the relevant social actors who, alone, can effect the transition to democracy in any country. This brief paper tries to do this.


Several insights from the literature on democratic transitions may help us to understand both what forces have impeded democratization in the region and how more accountable governance may be enhanced. One prominent analysis3 distinguishes between two phases of the transition, "extrication from authoritarian rule" and "constitution of a democratic one." When the repressive powers of the state are intact during the transition (Chile, South Korea), the first process dominates. When these institutions have shattered, typically thanks either to military defeat (Argentina, Greece) or to strong civilian-party control of the repressive apparatus (Eastern Europe), the second process is "unencumbered by extrication," which removes (in theory) at least one barrier to success. From a regional perspective, however, one should note that in both the Greek and Argentine cases, the military defeat shattered the legitimacy of the dictatorship and was not followed by any occupation by foreign forces. The salutary benefits of defeat in war for democracy are greatly diminished if these two features are absent, as the current Iraqi situation suggests.

Especially for a transition that requires a simultaneous extrication from authoritar-ianism and a transition to democracy, three features are necessary: 1) A sufficiently large number of reformers within the existing regime must reach an agreement with moderate opponents of the regime; 2) the reformers must persuade military/security hardliners within the regime to cooperate with institutional change; and 3) moderates must contain their allies, the more radical opponents of the regime. Only if all three conditions are met will it be possible for a large enough set of social actors to believe that a credible commitment has been made by both current power wielders and their opponents to follow a set of rules of the game in which defeat at the polls does not mean annihilation. The literature describes (infelicitously, alas) such coalitions and their fruits as "pacted transitions," so called because a tacit agreement or pact between moderates inside the government and in opposition is necessary for a transition toward democratic rule.


Several historical forces have conspired to impede such transitions in the Arab region. One major historical force is the dominant position of the military and security apparatuses in Arab polities, many of whose members are hardliners. The social formation often known as the mukhabarat state is itself very much the product of the struggle against European colonialism and the intersection of that struggle with the Cold War between the United States and the USSR. For at least the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, Arab governments unsurprisingly believed that they needed to be militarily strong to protect their often hard-won independence. (The Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq has revived these fears.) The continued conflict with Israel has been understandably perceived as an extension of this struggle. And, during the Cold War, an authoritarian military regime could always count on support from one superpower, provided that such an Arab regime made suitable political moves against the other superpower. In short, the fact that the often-violent struggle for independence was followed by a half-century of conflict with Israel, in a context of global Cold War, greatly strengthened authoritarianism.

A second critical barrier to transition has been the "low dependence of states on citizens."4 This is a variant, of course, of the "rentier state" argument.5 Although it was first formulated in the context of oil rents, it has been extended to include what we might call "strategic rents," as the preceding paragraph suggests. So long as authoritarian governments have sufficient resources, whatever their other failings, they may have little incentive to reform. Oil and strategic location, from a superpower perspective, continue to provide important barriers to "pacted transitions" away from authoritarian rule in the region.

The decline in oil prices in the 1980s and 1990s led to much discussion of the weakening of the "authoritarian social contract" (a presumed tacit agreement in which the state supposedly supplied social services to the citizens, while citizens reciprocated with loyalty and obedience). Some Arab democrats hoped that softer oil prices would weaken autocrats sufficiently that they would expand the social space for political participation and foster greater accountability in governance. Unfortunately, however, such a change did not occur on any wide scale; further, the current uptick in oil prices -- which many economists think will persist for some time -- does not bode well for any further weakening of the "rentier state."6


A necessary condition for a pacted transition is the willingness of reformers within the state to trust that key regime opponents will both "play by new rules" and control their more radical allies. The problem is fully symmetric: moderate reformers need to know that reformist elements within the state apparatus can and will restrain hardliners. Understanding the conditions under which such a situation can come about seems essential for understanding how and by whose agency democracy might come to the Arab region.

In many Arab countries, the best-organized opposition forces are those of "political Islam." The Islamist movement is huge and diffuse, with many national and local variations. Increasingly, what were formerly called "secular nationalists" in opposition have either joined Islamist movements or are cooperating with them politically. The logic of transition to democracy implies that moderates within the Islamist (and nationalist) camp must be willing to play by democratic rules, convince reform elements within the state of their sincerity, and maintain control over their radical allies. It seems highly probable that such a process will be a protracted and complex one, with reversals as well as advances along the way.

Islamists now participate in elections in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Palestine and Yemen. They have tried to do so in Egypt (under the banner of the Hizb al-Wasat), where the Muslim Brotherhood has made many statements confirming its support of fundamental democratic changes, such as fair and free elections, the amendment of the laws on political parties and on professional syndicates, and the lifting of the Emergency Law. Such changes are called for by all Egyptian democrats, regardless of other ideological differences. Further afield, Islamists have participated in elections in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia. Most pertinent here, the current governing party of the Turkish Republic is Islamist, and (Shiite) Islamists hold prominent positions in -- and by some calculations, dominate -- the current interim Iraqi government. Many outside observers (Olivier Roy and Graham Fuller) have noted that there exist strong democratic trends within the (still broader) movements of "political Islam." One of these observers (Fuller) has gone so far as to remark, "The charge, ‘one man, one vote, one time' is no more than a slogan wielded by authoritar-ians and Westerners who fear Islamist power at the ballot box."7

Nowhere in the world has the transition from authoritarianism to democracy been simple. The Arab region is likely to be no exception. Vibrant debates over the relationship between cultural authenticity and democracy have been going on for some time in the Arab region. Yet precisely because Arab authoritarians have remained stronger than their counterparts in some other Muslim-majority countries, even livelier debates have emerged in Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey. Friends of Arab democracy have much to learn from these discussions.

These debates are particularly revealing concerning questions of the relationship between interpretations of Islam and various forms of democracy. There is no doubt that for Islam, as for other faiths (Roman Catholicism, for example), religious texts may be interpreted to prohibit democracy. The fact that some prominent Islamic opposition movements (some salafis) oppose democracy as an alien importation is unsurprising and hardly decisive. After all, the Roman Catholic Church vociferously opposed democracy throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, yet Catholic Europe is today entirely democratic, as is most of largely Catholic Latin America. As noted earlier, Islamist thinkers are now finding ways to ensure that democracy in Muslim-majority countries is culturally authentic. In short, despite the deplorably belligerent rhetoric now fashionable in some American circles, there is little reason to suppose that the "culture" of the Arab region constitutes a barrier to the transition toward democracy. The political-economy model that is sketched above seems a far more parsimonious, and therefore to many analysts a far more persuasive, explanation of the absence of democracy in the region than ponderous and often ill-informed theological pontifications.

Nor is it reasonable to argue that Arab countries are somehow "not ready" for democracy, thanks to their current "level of development." The correlation between democracy and economic development was always rendered suspect by the fact that the world's largest democracy, India, was also desperately poor. Current levels of literacy, education and urbanization in the Arab region are certainly high enough to guarantee a vibrant democracy -- if the critical political barriers can be overcome.

Although much attention has, rightly, been paid to the question of whether many opposition forces are willing to play by the rules of the democratic game, rather less focus has been directed to the other side of the equation: why and how moderate reformers within the regime can restrain the hardliners of the mukhabarat and the armed forces. There are two broad reasons why those in power resist democratization: simple material self-interest and deeply held ideology. After all, wielding the levers of power in an autocratic state permits one to garner substantial rents; bluntly stated, tyrants become rich rentiers. The hardliners ask, "Why should we give up our special privileges, our wealth and our incomes?" One possible response by would-be democratizers could be to show a significant portion of these rentiers that democracy threatens their material comfort rather less than they imagine. After all, the knowledge and connections such people enjoy will continue to be valuable in a democracy. Such a conclusion, indeed, seems to have been drawn by many of the former Soviet nomenklatura.

Economic and status benefits do not fully explain autocrats' reluctance to forge a pacted transition, however. Ideology also matters. The ideological opposition to sharing power that emanates from government circles is usually framed in nationalist terms. Here too, however, Arab democrats have opportunities. After all, autocrats have done rather poorly in defending Arab rights in the international arena. The argument that democracy holds out considerably greater hope for whatever genuine national autonomy remains possible in today's globalized, interdependent world may find a friendly hearing among forward-looking military officers. After all, for nearly all of these men, patriotism runs very deep. It is at least possible that an Islamist-nationalist opposition could forge a "pact" with patriotic reformers within government. The devil, as always, will be in the details of the pact, the level of trust of the respective parties, and the conjuncture within which the pact is negotiated. But such a pact seems to offer the best prospects for a transition to an authentically Arab democracy.


The key point is that the barriers to a transition away from authoritarianism and toward democracy in the Arab region are fundamentally political. Unfortunately, current developments are far from encouraging here. The ongoing, brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has not only greatly weakened or destroyed whatever nascent democracy may have been emerging in Palestine; it has also greatly increased the nervousness of Arab security services and militaries everywhere. The fact that the world's sole superpower simply refuses to restrain the Israeli government helps to ensure that the conflict will get worse, not better. Such a situation, in addition to being a grave and ongoing human-rights disaster, impedes pacted transitions toward democracy by encouraging both hardline authoritarians within governments and extremists in opposition. The American invasion and occupation of Iraq has exacerbated the already high level of nervousness among Arab military and security elites, while greatly strengthening the popular appeal of anti-democratic radicals such as those of al-Qaeda and other jihadi salafis.

The American reaction to the events of September 11, 2001, has also provided a poor environment for pacted transitions. From a political-economy perspective, the main result of the post-9/11 policy shifts in the United States has been to ensure that any authoritarian who resolutely pursued violent enemies of the United States could depend upon U.S. support. Such a policy stance, of course, further bolsters hardliners within authoritarian regimes, giving them fewer reasons than before to seek accommodation with opposition elements.

This is the final barrier, then, to a transition to democracy in the Arab region: the world's sole superpower does not really want it to happen, pious neoconservative rhetoric notwithstanding. As Talleyrand famously remarked, "Nations do not have friends, they have interests." So long as American interests in the Arab region are defined as follows: 1) support for Israel, regardless of its occupation policies in the West Bank and Gaza; 2) opposition to any state having even short-run market power over oil prices; and 3) opposition to any regime that might harbor terrorists, U.S. policies (as opposed to rhetoric and marginal activities, such as support for some NGOs) are likely to undermine pacted transitions.

This is fundamentally the case because the opposition in nearly all Arab countries is dominated by the forces of political Islam. Would the United States really welcome a pacted transition in which, say, moderate Muslim Brothers and reformist, patriotic generals in Egypt agreed to share power? Even assuming that the thorny internal problems of "credible commitment to the democratic rules of the game" had been surmounted, would not the United States oppose such a government, which would vociferously oppose American policy in Palestine and Iraq, for example? Given the current balance of forces in the world today, would not that opposition endanger the transition?

The situation in the Arab region today resembles that of Latin America during the Cold War, when American paranoia about Marxism undermined existing democracies and blocked nascent pacted transitions. As in today's Arab region, the internal and external obstacles to a democratic transition helped to create and reinforce one another. The United States strengthened hardliners (and, therefore, also radicals in opposition), partly because it feared that Marxists would not play by the democratic rules of the game if they won elections. Moderates in opposition were weakened, because radicals could plausibly argue that winning an election would be meaningless, since the hardliners, with U.S. help, would engineer a coup to overthrow an elected opposition government. Substitute "Islamist" for "Marxist," and you have a reasonable picture of the key dynamics thwarting a transition to democracy in the Arab region.

Friends of such transitions, in the Arab region and in the United States, have much work to do in the months and years ahead. Some of us hope that the recent Turkish election may set a standard for an elected, truly democratic, Islamist government. If hardliners in the Turkish military, radicals in the Turkish opposition, and the U.S. government can all refrain from undermining the current government, the Turkish case could set an important precedent for the Arab region. If so, progress toward closing the democracy deficit may accelerate.

It would also greatly help, of course, if the world's only superpower reversed its current declared policy of unilateral military intervention, as well as modified its opposition to the democratic accession to power of the forces of political Islam. Unfortunately, current political and cultural trends in the United States are not encouraging in this regard. On the other hand, Clio, the muse of history, delights in unintended outcomes. To use a different metaphor, politics makes strange bedfellows. Although the United States initially opposed early elections in Iraq, after Ayatollah Sistani turned huge numbers of his followers out in the streets to demand such elections, Washington had little choice but to agree. The United States is now uneasily allied with Shiite Islamist forces in Iraq. Perhaps this experience will help American foreign-policy elites get over their resistance to the accession of Islamist forces to power through elections.8 Skeptics will counter that such a change is unlikely, and that, since the current situation in Iraq is so unstable, the old habits of all agents will soon reassert themselves. In these grim times, however, it may be helpful to remember how quickly historical tides may shift. We can only hope that such a shift may be forthcoming, and soon.

1 This is a slightly revised version of a background paper written in May 2004 for the UNDP's Arab Human Development Report, 2004. It draws on my "On Transition from Authoritarian Rule and the Democratic Potential of Arab Regimes," Newsletter of the Economic Research Forum for the Arab Countries, Iran, and Turkey, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer 2002 (Cairo: The World Bank).
2 Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).
3 Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
4 E.g., Mick Moore, "Political Underdevelopment," paper presented at the Tenth Anniversary Conference of the Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics, New Institutional Theory, Institutional Reform and Poverty Reduction, London, September 7-8, 2000, http://www.ids.ac.uk/idS/govern/pdfs/PolUnderdevel(refs).pdf.
5 E.g., Kirin Aziz Chaudhry, The Price of Wealth: Economies and Institutions in the Arab World (University of California Press, 1999).
6 See, for example, Fareed Mohamedi, "Oil Prices and Regime Resilience in the Gulf," Middle East Report, No. 232, Fall 2004, http://www.merip.org/mer/mer232/mohamedi.html.
7 Graham E. Fuller, The Future of Political Islam (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 138.
8 It is encouraging in this regard to note that J. Scott Carpenter, the American deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told the U.S.-Islamic World Forum at Doha that the United States was indeed willing to work with Islamists who came to power through elections. "U.S. Will Risk Middle East Reforms," Al-Jazeera, April 13, 2005, http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/31ADB105-68FC-4BE8-BC40-90107F2678EF.htm.

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