Middle East Online

The democratization waves that swept over Latin America and Central Europe in the 1980s and 1990s reinforced the belief that the Western model of market liberal democracy could take root on all soils, no matter what the social, cultural, and historical nutrients had been. And while the West’s sophist experts were surely not delighted to see Latin American countries vote for socialist leaders, or Palestine for Hamas, there was at least a firm belief that elections would not be followed by state failure. This was all, of course, before Tunisia and Egypt held elections.

Historically, it is not uncommon to witness a democratic election as a prelude to state failure. The Nazis had been elected, and the wind of democracy blew away the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. On the other hand, Greece, Portugal, and Spain witnessed successful transitions towards democracy in the 1970s. So what separates voting for state building from voting for state failure?

A comparison of Latin America and Central Europe to the Arab world is illustrative and points to three fundamental differences. First, democratization in Latin America and Central Europe followed a declaration of economic bankruptcy. The uprising in the Arab world, on the other hand, occurred at a time of aggregate economic growth; and, unfortunately, the growth mostly benefitted akleptocratic elite and left much of the Arab youth without employment or hope for a better future. Second, the democratization waves in Latin America and Central Europe were largely comprehensive regional events that also reduced the likelihood of meddling from neighbors. The Arab uprising is still an isolated phenomenon among non-oil economies. Neighboring countries like Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, or terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, still play an important, and seemingly increasing, role. Finally, Latin America and Central Europe collapsed close to the democratic gravity centers of Western Europe and North America, which were readily willing to lend the transforming countries a helping hand through economic integration and debt relief. The Arab world has no nearby democratic gravity field, much less one that is willing to lend a helping hand.

There are zero-sum and positive sum conflicts at the beginning of democratization. Latin America and Central Europe faced positive-sum conflicts as democratization carried huge economic dividends. When Latin America collapsed under the sovereign debt crisis of the 1980s, democratization paved the way for debt restructuring and trade integration. Similarly, Western Europe supported economically and politically the transformation process in Central and Eastern Europe. Democratization enlarged the cake for everyone.

The Arab world, on the other hand, faces zero-sum conflicts and there is no comparable immediate democratization dividend. The uprisings were triggered by a majority of disenfranchised citizens who fell behind in a process of fast economic change and who wereat the mercy of corrupt regimes that favored a “clientele” business elite and a powerful public sector, including especially the army. Democratization gave the disenfranchised, especially the well-organized Islamists, the opportunity to differently redistribute an existing cake. But unless the Arab world becomes politically more homogenous and economically more integrated, the prospects for more or bigger cakes are dismal.

Adding insult to injury, the West has lost its credibility as a defender of democracy and market liberalism in the Arab world. The US botched the “liberalization” and “democratization” of Iraq. In Egypt, the US propped up the Mubarak regime for more than two decades, and in Syria, the West strangled the economy with sanctions for political reasons when Syria was desperately trying to gain access to world markets. While in Latin America and Central Europe the West pursued its strategic interests by presenting itself as a liberator and defender of democracy and market liberalism, the West turned into a political and economic manipulator in the Arab world with no seemingly ethical or moral difficulty to betray these exact same principals.

These three distinctive features of the Arab region ought to be understood by all who claim to have special insight into the causes and consequences of the Arab uprisings. They explain why, for example, Egypt and Syria now witness uprisings of potent oppositions to still potent and partially legitimate states. In Latin America and Central Europe, government lost its potency and all its legitimacy and the people were largely unified in the dismantling of autocratic governments. In the Arab uprisings, people rose up not only against their governments, but also against each other. Only Iraq was spared an uprising against the government and so the people have been able to focus exclusively on destroying each other. Western style democracy has arrived by different paths to Arab countries, but what is common throughout is that it has so far only legitimized state failure.

Marcus Marktanner is Associate Professor of Economics and International Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University with substantial teaching and research experience in the Arab world. He received his PhD from the Technical University of Ilmenau, Germany in 1997. In his doctoral thesis he examined the political economy of the economic transformation process of former socialist economies. Before joining the faculty of Kennesaw State University in June 2011, he held teaching and research positions in Lebanon, the US, and Germany. His research focuses on comparative economics, economic development, and conflict economics. He has consulted the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the World Food Program (WFP). He also regularly contributes to the work of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation as an author and speaker on the topic of the Social Market Economy.