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Middle East

Democracy’s failure in the Arab world

Anti-government protests in Tunisia, 2018. Anis Mili/AFP/Getty Images

A decade after the Arab Spring, the region is “cheering the fall of democracy”, says Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. In Tunisia, President Kais Saied’s apparent coup has brought approving crowds onto the streets after years of inept government. Democracy is important, but it “ranks lower in the hierarchy of needs than food, shelter and security”. A strongman promising stability is more appealing than a failing elected government. Lebanon and Iraq are unfortunate examples of the latter. It’s not unusual to hear Iraqis, suffering through power and water shortages, “sound nostalgic for Saddam Hussein, a vicious dictator who at least delivered reliable electricity”. 

Contrast that with the Middle East’s richest, most powerful countries: Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE and Qatar. All are autocracies. It’s not that the Middle East is particularly attached to dictatorship – rather, it shows how hard it is for democracy to take root. “Enlightened despots” in 18th-century Europe, and in 20th-century South Korea and Taiwan, built stable economics and institutions that allowed a transition to democracy. But while the “China model” of stability and order might look tempting, the “years of corruption and stagnation” that sparked the Arab Spring show that in the Middle East, “unenlightened despots have been more common than the enlightened variety”.