The democracy deficit is a conceptual term that describes the lack of existing or thriving democratic governments in the Middle East since the aftermath of World War II when the basis for the modern Middle East nation-state model was established with “the formation of new states and the building of new nations” (Anderson, p. 3) in the region formerly centralized by the Ottoman Empire. When looking at the democracy deficit in the Middle East, statistics show that “only two out of twenty-one countries qualify as electoral democracies, down from three observed in 1972” (Bellin, p. 139). While the international stage has witnessed an overall increase in representative or parliamentary democracies since 1972, the Middle Eastern states have remained predominantly monarchial or authoritarian in government structure (Bellin, p. 139). Since “no single variable will ever prove to be universally necessary” (Bellin, p. 141) for establishing successful and sustainable democracy within a state, it is important to look at specific trends on what strengthens the grasp of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East region and how the coercive apparatus, or ruling power, is able to exploit those conditions in order to maintain power.
The first overall state trend that allows authoritarianism to thrive in the Middle East is a weak civil society, without strong nongovernment organizations, and civil freedoms, that do not allow “opportunities for citizens to participate in collective deliberation” (Bellin, p. 139). In order to create and push successful reform measures, the people must be able to organize and establish a platform in which to organize. When the coercive apparatus oppresses, directly or indirectly, the civil society and prevents nongovernment organizations from flourishing, it is extremely difficult for the people to collectively demand change through organized channels.
The economy is the second trend as the majority of Middle Eastern states have economies greatly regulated by the state, or coercive apparatus, and this fiscal centralization “undermines the capacity to build autonomous, countervailing power to the state in society” (Bellin, p. 139). If the state controls the technology, the military arms, the natural resources, the food sources, and the overall power base, it becomes extremely difficult for the population to demand reform as the people have nothing to bargain with except violence against a well-armed coercive security apparatus.
The third trend can be observed with the inequalities of the domestic wealth distribution within the state and low literacy rates of the working masses (Bellin, p. 139). There will never be an emphasis on democratic reform, or any reforms, if the masses are not educated enough to prioritize and organize reform, and the ruling elite will always cling to the status quo for the obvious reasons of their acquired power and wealth (Bellin, p. 140).
The fourth observable trend is that the majority of Middle Eastern states do not “border directly on successful models of democratic rule” (Bellin, p. 140), and are therefore not influenced by any positive examples of electoral democracy. The only problem with this theory is that the Middle East has seen a decline in democratic states, albeit those states were pre-western puppet governments established by withdrawing western states, and those temporary democracies didn’t influence neighboring states and eventually relapsed to different structures of government. In addition, the state of Israel consistently proclaims itself a beacon of democracy in the Middle East while committing consistent human rights violations against the Palestinian people and committing ethnic cleansing through illegal settlement building despite the remonstrations of the international community.
The final trend is blamed on Islam and the presumption that Islam is anti-Democratic in nature (Bellin, p. 140). This presumption is incorrect as Iran is an Islamic theocracy with many democratic elements to its government structure, and while the Iranian government structure is certainly not the same model of free-for-all electoral democracy as western capitalist representative democracies are, Iran still possesses democratic elements under an Islamic constitution which proves that Islam is not anti-democracy.
Some of the state trends that have been noted by Bellin create social and political environments that allow authoritarian governments in the Middle East to remain unchallenged in their grasp of power because “coercive apparatus in many states has been exceptionally able and willing to crush reform initiatives from below (Bellin, p. 144). Considering that the military is the first line of defense for state coercive apparatus power, whether authoritarian or democratic, the fiscal health of a state is extremely relevant in holding power for the coercive apparatus, or controlling power. If the state is unable to pay or feed, or provide subsistence to, its military members and families, the state coercive apparatus will become insecure and will eventually become unstable (Bellin, p. 144) which would result in a severe vulnerability for the state coercive apparatus. When considering the fact that most modern Middle Eastern states “enjoy sufficient revenue to sustain exceedingly robust expenditure on their security apparatuses” (Bellin, p. 147) and are “among the biggest spenders in terms of arms purchased” (Bellin, p. 147), the strength of the average Middle Eastern state coercive apparatus becomes evident. The wealth that allows this type of security building for Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes is generally derived from capitalist rentier states associated with “petroleum resources, gas resources, geostrategic utility, and control of critical transit facilities” (Bellin, p. 148). In addition, authoritarian states also receive conditional International Monetary Fund loans and western foreign aid, such as the annual two billion dollars a year in United States foreign aid to Egypt during and after the Mubarak era, and the ongoing annual three billion dollars a year to Israel that is provided by the United States (Bellin, p. 148). Many authoritarian leaders would lose the “capacity to hold on to power” (Bellin, p. 144) without the economic contributions of the capitalist west, but due to western-capitalist concerns for oil this is not the case and authoritarian states continue to maintain strong coercive apparatus security which results in continued longevity (Bellin, p. 148).
In addition to a strong coercive apparatus, the presence of a patrimonial coercive apparatus strengthens the dedication to hold power and block reform for authoritarian regimes. Under patrimonial conditions, the possibility of democratic, social, political or economic reform could indicate ruin for the elite of the monarchy or authoritarian state (Bellin, p. 149). There are ample historical examples such with “Bourguiba's son, Qaddafi's cousins, Asad's brother, Saddam's in-laws” (Anderson, p. 11).
Anderson, Lisa. 1991. “Absolutism and the Resilience of Monarchy in the Middle East.” Political Science Quarterly 106, no. 1 (1991): 1-15.
Bellin, Eva. 2004. The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective. Comparative Politics, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Jan., 2004), pp. 139-157
Ross, Michael. 2001. Does Oil Hinder Democracy? World Politics, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Apr., 2001), pp. 325-361