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STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS — Arab nations rocked by popular uprisings in recent months face complex, precarious and, often divergent, paths toward establishing democracy, says a Stanford University expert on global democracy movements.

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, in a March 8 talk assessed the prospects for democratic change following the wave of tumult in the Arab world. “I wouldn’t take anything for granted,” said Diamond. He described himself as neither “blindly optimistic” nor “cavalierly dismissing of democratic possibilities in any of these countries.”
But Diamond cautioned that a transition from authoritarian rule to democratic governance in the region will be tricky. “Getting the timing right, getting the sequence right, getting the institutions right, getting the politics right, is fundamentally important, even essential, to having a successful democratic transition,” he said at the event sponsored by the Government and Politics Club, a student group at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Diamond said uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab nations represent the latest wave of democracy movements that have reshaped the world. In 1974, there were about 40 democratic countries. Another 76 became democracies over the past 35 years. Of the world’s 194 nations, 116 are democracies today, said Diamond, who is director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law in the Freeman Spogli Institute.

He identified several pre-conditions that increase the likelihood of successful democratic change. “It helps if a country is reasonably economically developed and literate” and if there is “a business or entrepreneurial class,” he said. In addition, some exposure to democratic culture and ideas, particularly “pluralism” and “tolerance”, are important. Experience with independent media also helps.

Diamond noted that, since the American Revolution in 1776 there have been few democracies established from revolutions of violence. “Usually, the charismatic figure who leads a revolutionary struggle through violent means winds up like Lenin, Mao, or Khomeini, not like George Washington or Nelson Mandela,” he said.

Democracy is more likely if there is a negotiated transition involving “soft-liners” in an authoritarian regime and flexible elements of the political opposition. “You want to draw in elements of the new political order” by cutting political deals, Diamond added.

In the post-autocracy era, the form of government chosen is immensely important. Will it be a presidential system, parliamentary system or combination of both? The Arab world has witnessed a growing call for getting rid of “presidentialism” and for establishing “parliamentary rule with strong constraints on executive power,” Diamond said.

Another crucial step is establishing a fair and representative electoral system. Diamond voiced skepticism over “majoritarian parliamentary rule” that can allow one party to dominate even if it wins only a plurality, rather than a majority, of votes. Newly democraticizing Arab countries should take adequate time to set up fair electoral systems with cleaned-up voter registration and independent electoral oversight, Diamond suggested.

Among Arab countries, Tunisia, which overthrew its longtime dictatorship in January, had long been regarded as the most able to develop and sustain democracy, said Diamond. With an established middle class, Tunisia was “less polarized and radicalized than many other Arab nations,” he added.

“I am rather hopeful about Tunisia. I am much more optimistic about Tunisia than Egypt,” said Diamond who was “very skeptical” about democratic prospects in Egypt. The country has a substantial base of capital and entrepreneurs, “astonishing” talent, and a strategic location, but “the place is falling apart.”

In addition, he said he was “deeply suspicious” about the military council that took over as the transitional government. “It’s not like the military was allied with the Mubarak regime. The military was the previous Mubarak regime.” The Egyptian military, Diamond said, is “not above playing the same game Hosni Mubarak played” to thwart democracy.

Egypt’s electoral system also needs reform according to Diamond. “If you use the electoral system that Egypt now has, you’ll have another calamity. Egypt has an electoral system worse than the U.K. in terms of majoritarian implications. If you go into a parliamentary election in Egypt with that system and not enough time to re-do electoral registration, what are you going to get? Basically, you will get an electoral outcome dominated by the old ruling party with a new name — and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

It could take a year to 18 months for Egypt to transition to democracy, the scholar said. Eventually, multiple political parties will emerge, a coalition government will be formed, and Egypt will focus more on domestic issues, Diamond predicted.

Turning to other Arab nations, Diamond said the situations in Libya and Bahrain are “open-ended.” And the Yemeni regime “will not survive in its current form.”

Saudi Arabia has “probably the most absolute monarchy in the world” and a “sclerotic” system of governance, Diamond said. It also faces pressures from rapid population growth and a “generational cleavage.” However, “I don’t think it’s ready to collapse yet.”

Many Arabs have looked to Turkey as an example of democratic progress. But “I’m not as big on the Turkish model as some people are,” said Diamond, pointing to human rights violations and a military that has usurped democratic processes.

Overall, the Arab revolts of 2011 have been facilitated by technologies such as Google, YouTube, and Facebook. (Diamond’s democracy center at Stanford has a program on “liberation technology” that examines the use of technology in improving governance and economic development.) Technology has given a younger generation of Arabs access to “ideas, tools, methods, and democratic values and culture,” said Diamond. “The net contribution has been significantly positive.”
By Maria Shao

For further reading, see “Why are There No Arab Democracies?” Larry Diamond, Journal of Democracy, January 2010

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