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InsiderOnline Blog: April 2011

Democracy Is Difficult in the Middle East

The history of the Middle East does not support a case for optimism about the “Arab Spring of 2011.” The region has almost no successful experience with democratic rule. Indeed, in the last half of the last century, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Yemen all overthrew dynastic rule, only to be governed by a different set of tyrants.

One explanation for this anti-democratic pattern is climate. Simply put, it doesn’t rain much in North Africa and the Middle East, which makes access to bodies of water like the Nile River crucial for agriculture. According to Stephen Haber and Victor Menaldo, control of those sources of irrigation is easily concentrated in a few hands, and that tendency has produced societies “composed of a wealthy elite and a vast, impoverished peasantry.” That predisposes revolutions in such societies to emphasizing class warfare rather than securing individual rights for all. Their evidence:

The Middle East and North Africa are part of a much vaster area of low precipitation, the Afro-Asian Dry Belt, which extends from Mauritania (on Africa’s Atlantic Coast), eastward across Mali, Niger, Chad, and the Sudan, and northwards across Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. It then continues eastwards, encompassing all of the nations of the Middle East, Central Asia, Northwestern China, and Mongolia.

Across that vast stretch of the earth, encompassing a broad range of ethnicities, language groups, and colonial experiences, there is only one country that has managed to sustain a democracy: Israel. The fact that it is the exception suggests the power of our rule: Israel did so on the basis of an immigrant population that brought their human capital with them, allowing them to transform deserts and briny marshes into farmland. [“A Democratic Middle East?,” Defining Ideas, March 31, 2011.]

As Israel demonstrates, environment isn’t destiny; but in setting current policy, it never hurts to heed the predispositions indicated by history.

Posted on 04/07/11 02:00 PM by Alex Adrianson

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