The Inhibitors and Prospects of Democracy in the Middle East and North Africa

Travis Stright


All too often, people view Islam as the reason for repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). However, placing blame on religion and relying on outdated Orientalist views of the enduring conflicts are the obstacles to understanding the political situations in the region. Early Islamic history demonstrates compatibility between Islam and democracy in which individual and social freedoms do not oppose each other. Yet today, dictatorial rule and denial of civil, political, and human rights prevail in the vast majority of MENA states. This paper examines the fundamental reasons why democracy and freedoms are hampered in the MENA. Glimmers of democracy such as the 2011 revolutions, increased participation in electoral processes, and elements of free press and rule of law reveal hope. However, in most MENA states the head of state still monopolizes key decisions, and such a status quo is very difficult to change. When trying to understand a sociological situation impacted by many factors, a critical approach is most effective. Analyses of state backgrounds in this comparative study reveal the deviations and roots of authoritarian tendencies in MENA states. Democracy is inhibited in the MENA by authoritarian regimes that repress pluralism, a large middle class who is dependent on the government, the lack of private sector activity, and regional interstate conflicts. Repressive regimes rose due to a variety of factors, notably dependency theory. Due to deeply repressive roots, the MENA must democratize in an extended process of fundamental societal, legal, economic, and political development. These findings illuminate the prospects for a lasting democratization and the protection of freedoms in the MENA.


Middle East; Democracy; Arab Spring

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