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March 19, 2003

Explaining the Arab Democracy Deficit: Part I

Middle East Intelligence Bulletin article of great merit

Perhaps the most widely researched proposition in political science is the argument that economic development propels societies toward participatory forms of governance. Mass education, for example, is said to produce "a more articulate public that is better equipped to organize and communicate,"[8] while urbanization and communications advances encourage the growth of horizontal civic associations. Higher levels of occupational specialization produce an autonomous workforce with "specialized skills that enhance their bargaining power against elites."[9] Advances in health care and greater income equality are said to promote democratization by satisfying the basic medical needs of citizens, allowing them to embrace post-materialist values, such as freedom and self-expression.

While the validity of these propositions, collectively known as modernization theory, remains the subject of intense debate among political scientists, it is clear that they cannot explain the Arab democratic deficit. Most socio-economic status (SES) indicators in the region are relatively high by Third World standards and have been rising steadily for decades.[10] The only major exception is the Arab world's adult literacy rate, 57% in the mid-1990s, which ranks well below those of East Asia and Latin America and only slightly higher than Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, literacy rates in many Arab states are significantly lower than average relative to per capita income (on this basis, for example, Egypt should have a literacy rate of 70%, rather than 55%). A second, related exception is per capita Internet usage, which is also low, both in comparison to other regions and in relation to per capita income.

Although these indicators appear to correlate somewhat with varying degrees of political liberalization within the Arab world (Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon, where proto-democratic institutions are arguably the strongest, all have literacy rates in excess of 75% and relatively high Internet usage rates), it is doubtful that they are the root of the region's "democracy curse" for two reasons. First, lower levels of both have not blocked transitions in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Moreover, there is evidence that low literacy and Internet usage rates are themselves a result of authoritarianism in the Arab world. Although education budgets in the region are very large, much of this allocation is squandered on bloated bureaucracies (itself a symptom of autocratic governance), with little left over for educational materials. In addition, only a few Arab regimes have launched adult literacy campaigns. [more]