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Tunisians celebrate the sixth anniversary of their revolution: 86 per cent believe democracy is the best political system (© Amine Landoulsi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

All Western societies share the view that democracy is the best form of government, and have been happy to see the waves of democratisation reach Latin America, then parts of Asia, and then Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed.

But when it comes to the Arab lands, a different view prevails. There, democracy is often viewed as inappropriate and indeed dangerous — to the Arabs and to us. It is not shocking that this view is so widespread. Many experts thought after the Second World War that Japan and other parts of Asia lacked the cultural basis for democracy. Latin America, we were told in the decades when military juntas ruled everywhere, could never democratise due to the twin influences of Catholicism and Iberian colonialism. But democracy has proved more robust and more adaptable than many feared. As Ronald Reagan said at Westminster in 1982, “Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.”

Yet in the Arab case, pessimists have many powerful arguments. There is no history of democracy, of the sort that allowed a “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia or helped in many Latin cases. There is nothing like the model and magnet that the EU provided for nations in Central and Eastern Europe. There are deep internal divisions — Shia vs. Sunni vs. Kurd, or tribal rivalries — in many countries, and it is no coincidence that Tunisia, the most homogeneous Arab state and the one where tribal loyalties are perhaps weakest, is the lone success story after the “Arab Spring” uprisings. The treatment of women in many Arab societies holds back social and political development (and here again, Tunisia is far better-off than most).

Do Arabs even want democracy, in the sense in which we use the term? What do we mean by it, first of all? A system in which the citizens of a state participate in ruling themselves through regular, contested elections to select officials; a system of impartial justice, where judges are independent; respect for basic human rights such as freedom of speech, press, and assembly; protection of certain rights from majoritarian rule through constitutional provisions. If we start with these, it is very hard to argue that (with exceptions I will explain) Arabs do not want them, and would prefer living in states where the police are free to grab you from your home, beat you, and jail you — or would prefer living in states where a dictator steals a vast fortune, makes his son his successor, and silences anyone who complains about it. And indeed, repeated and respectable surveys do show that Arabs want democracy. The “Arab Barometer” series of polls and those by the Pew Research Center have given strong evidence of this for over a decade. The country-by-country series of surveys of opinion, Five Years After the Uprisings, conducted in 2016 by Arab Barometer found, for example, that respondents agreeing that “despite its problems, democracy is better than all other political systems” reached 86 per cent in Tunisia, 79 per cent in Morocco, 84 per cent in Lebanon, 86 per cent in Jordan, and 74 per cent in Algeria.
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AnonymousDavid Kwavnick
December 7th, 2017
8:12 PM
The Arab world will never establish viable democracies, That privilege is reserved to the countries whose philosophical basis is in the Enlightenment. That is where the principles of democracy originate. The only countries capable of establishing viable democracies are those of the Anglosphere and Weatern Europe (except Iberia)

December 7th, 2017
4:12 PM
Democracy can flourish in only a small number of countries - those whose national ideological basis is in the enlightenment. That's the Anglosphere and western Europe not including Iberia (which never had an enlightenment) Democracy is the most extremely secular political ideology possible.

Bernard Clabots
December 5th, 2017
10:12 AM
I really cannot agree with this view. All that the Arab countries need is that we, and especially the warmongers of USA leave them alone decide for their own fate. I'm so fed up of democracy this democracy that. Democracy in the western world has regressed dramatically, and we would be lecturing others? Look at Trump, a constitutionally elected president, with no less a majority than his predecessors. Look at what the establishment has been doing... They boycott anyway they can. They overpass their mandate, and see the support they receive in the media, I wouldn't be surprise there is some financial interest behind. Look at Europe, and the position of the German Government vs the vote of their representative. Look at the popular will and the decision taken to validate Monsanto, just days before Bayer took it over... Look at how people like Macron get elected, with massive support from the media industry and the "self-righteous" few. Who are we to criticize? Look at how a referendum where not even 1/3 of the population participated in Catalonia is validated by the media and how the crimean one would be labelled illegal... Look at splitting Serbia and splitting Syria/Irak is OK, but not splitting Ukraine, Georgia... Are we the ones to lecture others? Especially you, the USA citizens who fund the American Bully with almost a trillion dollars (US army). You talk about supporting democracy? I call this meddling. Leave us alone with your poisonous help. Democracy doesn't need any help. And you write that the Muslim extremists demonstrated they could not manage the country in Tunisia and Egypt???? Popular leaders were deposed by armed coups they didn't have a chance to fail... Please... Stop bullshitting the world, right? Start helping democracy in your satellites like KSA, and when you'll be successful, you'll train us on the howto. I was in Tunisia under the Dictatorship. It was a safe place. Women were free to smoke and walk the streets. Today, I wouldn't. UAE and KSA have legitimate governments? Based on slavery and negation of women basic rights. It's a shame to write this kind of article. Suddenly the US administration was favouring peaceful coups, preserving institution, and the "arab spring" was spontaneous. Let me laugh.

Lawrence James
December 5th, 2017
10:12 AM
Democracies require stability which autocratic regimes provide: in many parts of the world personal safety takes precedence over having a vote. This is understandable, less so is the assumption that Western systems are innately superior and offer the only pathway to human happiness.

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