The protesters who have toppled or endangered Arab dictators are demanding more freedoms, fair elections and a crackdown on corruption. But they have not promoted a distinct ideology, let alone a coherent one. This is because private organizations have played only a peripheral role and the demonstrations have lacked leaders of stature.
Both limitations are due to the longstanding dearth, across the Arab world, of autonomous nongovernmental associations serving as intermediaries between the individual and the state. This chronic weakness of civil society suggests that viable Arab democracies — or leaders who could govern them — will not emerge anytime soon. The more likely immediate outcome of the current turmoil is a new set of dictators or single-party regimes.
Democracy requires checks and balances, and it is largely through civil society that citizens protect their rights as individuals, force policy makers to accommodate their interests, and limit abuses of state authority. Civil society also promotes a culture of bargaining and gives future leaders the skills to articulate ideas, form coalitions and govern.
The preconditions for democracy are lacking in the Arab world partly because Hosni Mubarak and other Arab dictators spent the past half-century emasculating the news media, suppressing intellectual inquiry, restricting artistic expression, banning political parties, and co-opting regional, ethnic and religious organizations to silence dissenting voices.
But the handicaps of Arab civil society also have historical causes that transcend the policies of modern rulers. Until the establishment of colonial regimes in the late 19th century, Arab societies were ruled under Shariah law, which essentially precludes autonomous and self-governing private organizations. Thus, while Western Europe was making its tortuous transition from arbitrary rule by monarchs to democratic rule of law, the Middle East retained authoritarian political structures. Such a political environment prevented democratic institutions from taking root and ultimately facilitated the rise of modern Arab dictatorships.
Strikingly, Shariah lacks the concept of the corporation, a perpetual and self-governing organization that can be used either for profit-making purposes or to provide social services. Islam’s alternative to the nonprofit corporation was the waqf, a trust established in accordance with Shariah to deliver specified services forever, through trustees bound by essentially fixed instructions. Until modern times, schools, charities and places of worship, all organized as corporations in Western Europe, were set up as waqfs in the Middle East.
A corporation can adjust to changing conditions and participate in politics. A waqf can do neither. Thus, in premodern Europe, politically vocal churches, universities, professional associations and municipalities provided counterweights to monarchs. In the Middle East, apolitical waqfs did not foster social movements or ideologies.
Starting in the mid-19th century, the Middle East imported the concept of the corporation from Europe. In stages, self-governing Arab municipalities, professional associations, cultural groups and charities assumed the social functions of waqfs. Still, Arab civil society remains shallow by world standards.
A telling indication is that in their interactions with private or public organizations, citizens of Arab states are more likely than those in advanced democracies to rely on personal relationships with employees or representatives. This pattern is reflected in corruption statistics of Transparency International, which show that in Arab countries relationships with government agencies are much more likely to be viewed as personal business deals. A historically rooted preference for personal interactions limits the significance of organizations, which helps to explain why nongovernmental organizations have played only muted roles in the Arab uprisings.
A less powerful business sector also hindered democracy. The Middle East reached the industrial era with an atomistic private sector unequipped to compete with giant enterprises that had come to dominate the global economy. Until then, Arab businesses consisted exclusively of small, short-lived enterprises established under Islamic partnership law. This was a byproduct of Islam’s egalitarian inheritance system, which aimed to spread wealth. Successful enterprises were typically dissolved when a partner died, and to avoid the consequent losses Arab businessmen kept their enterprises both small and transitory.
Arab businesses had less political clout than their counterparts in Western Europe, where huge, established companies contributed to civil society directly as a political force against arbitrary government. They also did so indirectly by supporting social causes. For example, during industrialization, major European businesses financed political campaigns, including the mass education and antislavery movements.
Since the late 19th century, commercial codes transplanted from abroad have enabled Arabs to form large, durable enterprises like major banks, telecommunications giants and retail chains. Still, Arab companies tend to be smaller relative to global norms, which limits their power vis-à-vis the state. Although large Western corporations have been known to suppress political competition and restrict individual rights, in Arab countries it is the paucity of large private companies that poses the greater obstacle to democracy.
Despite these handicaps, there is some cause for optimism when it comes to democratization in the Middle East. The Arab world does not have to start from scratch. A panoply of private organizations are already present, though mainly in embryonic form. And if the current turmoil produces regimes more tolerant of grassroots politics and diversity of opinion, more associations able to defend individual freedoms will surely arise.
Moreover, the cornerstones of a modern economy are in place and widely accepted. Economic features at odds with Shariah, like banks and corporations, were adopted sufficiently long ago to become part of local culture. Their usefulness makes them appealing even to Islamists who find fault with other features of modernity.
Over the last 150 years, the Arab world has achieved structural economic transformations that took Europe a millennium. Its economic progress, whatever the shortcomings, has been remarkable. If political progress has lagged, this is partly because forming strong nongovernmental organizations takes time. Within a generation or two, as the economic transformations of the past century-and-a-half continue to change the way citizens interact with organizations, insurmountable pressure for democracy may yet arise even in those corners of the Arab world where civil society is weakest.
A stronger civil society alone will not bring about democracy. After all, private organizations can promote illiberal and despotic agendas, as Islamist organizations that denounce political pluralism and personal freedoms demonstrate. But without a strong civil society, dictators will never yield power, except in the face of foreign intervention.
Independent and well-financed private organizations are thus essential to the success of democratic transitions. They are also critical to maintaining democracies, once they have emerged. Indeed, without strong private players willing and able to resist undemocratic forces, nascent Arab democracies could easily slip back into authoritarianism.
By Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and political science at Duke and the author of The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East