Lack of democracy has arguably contributed to the lag in major aspects of Arab development, but as the Arab region contemplates its democratic future, on the back of recent political upheavals, a more pertinent question begins to emerge: “Does the Arab region need to follow a Western model of democratic transformation?” This was the question raised by Samir Makdisi (American University in Beirut) in the opening plenary of the ERF 17th Annual Conference.
The model of ‘developed societies’, as outlined by John Joseph Wallis (University of Maryland), is underpinned by the connection between economics and politics, and their fundamental role together in the development process. Despite a move towards liberalised economies across the Arab region, political institutions have remained closed, non-representative and non-democratic, said Makdisi.
The challenge for emerging democratic states, such as Tunisia and Egypt, is to shift from what Wallis calls limited access to open access social orders, and deciding on what pathway to take. If you go too quickly, there is a risk that the checks and balances provided by civil society and its institutions are not in place. But as Wallis pointed out, trying to fill this void with artificial checks would be deemed corrupt in developed societies and is perhaps not the best way to begin a democratic transition.
Ricardo Hausmann (Harvard University) pointed out that transition will not be easy, democracy requires not only building civil society, but also reaching a ‘competitive equilibrium’ between economic and political competition. In many Western democracies, institutions, laws and public participation co-evolved over time. This evolution is key to providing what Hausmann calls the “fitness-function”. This allows complex ‘self-organising’ systems to interact with their environment, creating a feedback-loop, and allowing institutions to adapt to different contexts.
For instance, in the USA there are 22,000 lobby groups, which help provide one element of this fitness-function, while the EU’s Acquis Communautaire is made up of 37 chapters, and 60,000 pages of legislature. There is simply no comparison with such examples in any state across the Arab region, and as a consequence no evolutionary process has taken place.
Makdisi, the man of questions, at today’s plenary, also asked during his presentation: “Will the uprisings across the Arab region lead to sustained democracies that result in solid and equitable development?” The fact is we don’t yet have the answer, but there are undoubtedly challenges ahead. The biggest of all is bringing together what we know about developed societies, the lack of civil society across the region, and the need for a ‘competitive equilibrium’ to sustain the complexity of democracy.