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Is Democracy Possible in the Arab World?

With Iraq rapidly descending into bloody chaos, the prospects for holding successful democratic elections in January, as the US and the Iraqi interim government have promised, look bleak. Some skeptics go further, arguing that the Iraq debacle proves that prospects for democracy throughout the Arab world are dim. Are they right?

Half the world's countries are democracies, yet none of the 22 Arab countries is among them. The United Nations' Arab Human Development Report is frank in its criticism of the region's economic and social progress. Economic growth has been slow, approximately half of women are illiterate, and the region is not well integrated into the world economy. Indeed, with a population of more than 300 million, Arab countries export less to the world, excluding oil and gas, than Finland.

An enormous "youth bulge" in the Arab world's demographic tables looms, with 45% of the population now under the age of 14, and the population as a whole set to double over the next quarter-century. Yet the region has inadequate opportunities for young people to find meaningful work. Unemployment hovers at 20%. At the same time, the Middle East is awash with modern communications, much of it with an anti-Western slant.

During the Cold War, America's approach to the Middle East was to foster stability in order to prevent the spread of Soviet influence, ensure the supply of oil, and provide security for Israel. The American strategy was management through autocratic leaders, and a "don't rock the boat" approach.