"Democracy's Long-Term Chances Are Slim."
Don't give up hope. During the heyday of democracy's global spread in the 1980s and 1990s, democracy enthusiasts tended not to pay much attention to the underlying social, economic, and historical conditions in countries attempting democratic transitions. Democracy appeared to be breaking out in the unlikeliest of places, whether Mongolia, Malawi, or Moldova. The burgeoning community of international democracy activists thought that as long as a critical mass of people within a country believed in and pushed for democracy, unfavorable underlying conditions could be overcome.
Two decades later, democracy enthusiasts are chastened. Democracy's "third wave" produced a very mixed set of outcomes around the world. Many once hopeful transitions, from Russia to Rwanda, have fallen badly short. Given these different results, it has become clear that underlying conditions do have a big impact on democratic success. Five are of special importance: 1) the level of economic development; 2) the degree of concentration of sources of national wealth; 3) the coherence and capability of the state; 4) the presence of identity-based divisions, such as along ethnic, religious, tribal, or clan lines; and 5) the amount of historical experience with political pluralism.
Seen in this light, the Arab world presents a daunting picture. Poverty is widespread; where it is not present, oil dominates. Sunni-Shiite divisions are serious in some countries; tribal tensions haunt others. In a few countries, like Libya, the coherence of basic state institutions has long been shockingly low. In much of the region, there is little historical experience with pluralism. A hard road ahead for democracy is almost certain.
Yet within the political and economic diversity of the Arab world lie some grounds for hope. Tunisia's population is well educated and a real middle class exists. Egypt's protests have shown the potential for cross-sectarian cooperation. Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco have parliamentary institutions with significant experience in multiparty competition, however attenuated. Additionally, the five factors mentioned above are indicators of likelihood, not preconditions. Their absence only indicates a difficult path, not an impossible one. After all, India failed this five-part test almost completely when it became independent, but has made a good go of democracy. Returning to the analogy of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s, at least one-third of African states have made genuine democratic progress despite facing far more daunting underlying conditions.