Prospects for the Middle East – Democratization and the Arab Spring

Prospects for the Middle East – Democratization and the Arab Spring

Roughly one year after the first protests in the region, what are the outlooks of the Arab Spring trajectories on the prospects for democratization? Relying on two seminal works of democratization literature Przeworski and Lipset, I will try to give explanations. Finally I point to shortcomings of a purely comparative and domestic-level perspective.

1. Introduction

In this paper I aim to answer through what factors the divergent directions of transitional dynamics in the Arab Spring could be explained.

I will do so following a threefold argument. First, I am going to turn my attention to concepts that could be applied to gain a better understanding of the transitional dynamics. Here the question is what factors and actors influence the transition process. In the second part, I am going to apply the identified factors and mechanisms from the concepts. Thus the question is: What factors led to the respective dynamics in each case.. The final part critically reflects the provided explanations and introduces another level of analysis through an international perspective on transition dynamics. In the conclusion, I argue that in order to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of why the transitions of the Arab Spring have taken different trajectories we will need to combine not only structural and agent based approaches on democratization but also bring the international level back in.

2. Main Analysis

Drawing from Lipset’s work on conditions that underpin democracy I will develop factors that can be subsumed as structural socio-economic factors. Ultimately I base these on Lipset’s central argument: “The more well-to-do a nation, the greater are the chances that it will sustain democracy” (Lipset 1959, p. 31). Lipset includes a number of indicators in his analysis that are all somehow connected to the socio-economic development of a country (Lipset 1959: pp. 76-78). As an illustration I propose a few basic indicators in my case study drawing on Lipset’s findings: GDP per capita, degree of urbanization and literacy rate.

Table 1: Economic Key Factors (own illustration)[1

Country GDP p. c. Urban pop. %
  Tunisia 7520 US$


  Egypt 5042 US$


  Syria 4276 US$


Table 1 illustrates that according to its income[2], Tunisia has the highest level of economic development of the three states. Furthermore, regarding the degree of urbanization, Tunisia also provides the highest relative amount of people living in urban areas. Following Lipset these prerequisites would imply that Tunisia has the best prospects of the three states for becoming a democracy. The predictions for Egypt and Syria would look less promising in this regard.

Lipset draws particular attention to the strong correlation between education and democracy (Lipset 1959, pp. 78-79). As a proxy for education, we will rely on the literacy rates within the three populations. Table 2 provides a different picture than the former one. The highest literacy rate can be identified in Syria with around 84 percent. Tunisia is quite close at around 78 percent whereas Egypt falls behind by another 12 percent with a literacy rate of around 66 percent. Lipset argues, that “literacy is related to democracy” (Lipset 1959, p. 80) in a positive way.

Table 2: Literacy rate (own illustration)[3]

Country in % of the population
  Syria 83,6%
  Tunisia 78%
  Egypt 66,4%

In sum, according to Lipset, Tunisia should have the best prospects of the three countries to successfully undergo a democratization process. Nevertheless as Lipset himself pointed out critically that “[c]learly, socioeconomic correlations are merely associational, and do not necessarily indicate cause” (Lipset 1994, p. 16). Therefore it seems inevitable to move on from the structure-centric understanding of democratization and reflect on “[…] the mode of regime transition [which] sets the context within which strategic interactions can take place because these interactions, in turn, help to determine whether political democracy will emerge and survive.”[4] (Karl 1990, p. 19).

Introducing a two-level game-theoretical model to my analysis with a differentiated elite concept will allow me to compare the three cases and their different actor constellations and behaviour. I will briefly illustrate how I would apply Przeworski’s game theoretical concept on the trajectories of the Arab Spring relying on his choice models in the chapter on democratization (Przeworski 1992, pp. 120-122). The initial situation is determined through massive demonstrations by the people consisting of moderates and radicals against an authoritarian regime consisting of reformers[5] and hardliners (Przeworski 1992, p. 120). The first crucial decision has to be taken by the reformers as the more liberal part of the authoritarian regime. Will they side with the hardliners and repress the uprising to preserve the status quo or will they step into negotiations with the moderate part of the anti authoritarian movement? If they decide to negotiate with the moderate leaders of the opposition and abandon the hardliners of the autocratic rule a regime change is fairly probable. In this constellation, it now depends on the next steps by the moderates. Will they form a coalition with the reformers and give these parts of the old regime guarantees to sustain within a future democratic environment or will they avert the moderates and side with the radicals to remove all parts of the old regime from power? In figure 1 which draws on Przeworski (Przeworski 1992, p. 121, Figure 4), I exemplarily illustrate how this game of transition could be translated into a decision tree for our cases.

Figure 1: Games of Transition in the Arab World (own illustration after Przeworski 1992, p. 121)[6]

The Przeworski model of splitting elites within the opposition movement and the authoritarian regime seems to be quite suitable for explaining the different games of transition that can be identified for our three cases. This approach also enables us to conceptualize the crucial role of the military in the transition processes of the three states.

As in the case of Syria, great parts of the military have sided with the hardliners of the regime and thus a strategy of brutal repression is employed to precipitate the opposition movement. If successful, this will re-establish the status quo and thus decline the prospects for democratization. The Egyptian case seems to fit the variant of a coalition between the moderates from the opposition movement and the reformers of the old regime. The military – interpreted as reformers – has turned against Mubarak and initiated negotiations with the moderates of the opposition movement about the transition process that recently led to constitutional amendments and parliamentary elections.  The radicals within the opposition movement can then be identified as those still demonstrating on the Tahir Square that are not agreeing with the role of the reformers as parts of the old regime in the current situation. In Tunisia, the pressure from the streets led Ben Ali to flee the country head over heels. The opposition quickly formed a transition council that took over the government business and prepared the elections for a constitutional assembly. The military played a minor role after Ben Ali had left and the new forces of the moderates and the radicals set out to draft the new constitution. As of today the process of transition in Tunisia seems quite promising. The new democratic constitution is in place and the parliamentary elections have been held successfully without incidents. Hence, from an actors-based theoretical perspective, Tunisia can be identified as the most promising case of the three for successful democratization.

Since the transition processes and the trajectories in all three cases cannot be ultimately be judged yet, the categorization that I have undertaken above is to be treated with caution. Nevertheless, it gives us a good idea of how theories of democratization can estimate the chances of success for transition countries. Furthermore, such analysis points to possible critical issues. This enables us to directly address these critical points to assist the transition states on their bumpy road towards democracy.

3. Conclusion

When taking a more distant perspective on the events subsumed under the label of Arab Spring, one is amazed by its transnational dynamic. The Arab uprising might be one of the best examples for the fact that “[n]either democratization nor conflict respects state boarders” (Cederman, Wenger and Hug 2008, p. 520). This observation stands in fundamental contrast to the comparative concepts that have been discussed above. As pointed out by Cederman, Wenger and Hug, the integration of a regional dimension to the analysis would enrich our understanding of the mechanisms that are at work during transition (Cederman, Wenger and Hug 2008, pp. 517-518). This illuminates how there still is a lot of research to be done to bridge the gap of the conceptual causal mechanisms[7] and the actual political dynamics of transition. Consequently, external factors should be introduced to the analysis. I will illustrate how this can be done by pointing to research that has been conducted on regional organizations and their role in democratization. As Pevehouse and Schimmelfennig have shown, the role of Regional Organisations can be significant (Pevehouse, 2005; Schimmelfennig, 2005; Schimmelfennig and Scholtz, 2008).

In the case of the Arab Uprising, the Arab League may take on a crucial role in the dynamics of transition. Its role in the case of Syria can be interpreted as a precedent case in this regard. The Arab League took on an ever-increasing role which climaxed recently when the actions of the Arab League transformed from intangible blaming and shaming to tangible punishments through substantial economic and political sanctions targeting the Syrian regime and suspension of the Syrian governments membership in the organization.[8] As Pevehouse and Schimmelfennig suggest, membership suspension and tangible economic and political sanctions by Regional Organizations can be effective instruments for influencing the cost-benefit calculations of the target government and domestic elites (Schimmelfennig 2005, p. 831;[9] Pevehouse 2005, pp. 20-23[10]).

In sum, it seems neither sufficient nor eligible to analyze the current developments the MENA[11] region with concepts that rely exclusively on domestic factors. Yet, external influence of for instance regional organizations can only unfold their impact if the domestic conditions are favourable (Schimmelfennig and Scholtz 2008:, p.188).

All in all, none of the applied concepts seems to be able to comprehensively explain the different trajectories of the Arab uprisings in our three cases alone. It seems necessary for further research to combine the mosaic of concepts on domestic-structural[12] and agency-focussed[13] analysis of democratisation together with the research conducted on the role of external actors such as regional organizations[14] to gain a more holistic understanding of the processes and dynamics underlying democratization.

by Ilyas Saliba

Ilyas Saliba is a graduate student in Comparative and International Studies at the ETH Zürich. He received his Bachelor in Political Science from the University of Hamburg in 2011. Currently, he is a research assistant at the chair for European politics with Frank Schimmelfennig and a teaching assistant with the chair for conflict research of Lars-Erik Cederman.

[1] Numbers from Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2010 country profiles; available online:

[2] Measured as GDP per capita

[3] Numbers from Human Development Report 2010: 193-4; available online:

[4] My emphasis in angular brackets.

[5] In my interpretation of the Arab uprisings and the cases discussed here the reformers consist mainly of the business elites and the elites of the military.

[6] This model supposes for the reformers to “have political weight independently of the hardliners” (Przeworski 1992: 121).

[7] As put forward by the modernization and transition literature.

[8] Article on concluded sanctions by the Arab League towards the Syrian regime and reactions online:

[9] Although Schimmelfennig argues that tangible rewards in form of membership benefits have proven most effective in the case of the CEECs he also considers tangible measures (rewards or punishments) overall more efficient than intangible ones.

[10] Although Pevehouse argues that regional organizations that are dominantly democratic have a more positive influence on transition than others and the Arab League can surely not be classified as a mostly democratic regional organization.

[11] Abbreviation for Middle East and North Africa.

[12] Modernization literature.

[13] Transition literature.

[14] For example Schimmelfennig (2005); Schimmelfennig and Scholtz (2008) and pevehouse (2005).


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