Arab Spring Revolutions Have Not Yet Created Democracies, but Democratization Is Possible

For Release

July 18, 2012

The Arab world is the one region that has been left out of the global trend toward greater embrace of democracy, but a successful shift from authoritarian regimes to democratic governments is possible there, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.

"Even as events in the Arab world continue to be tumultuous, policymakers need to take the long view of the democratization process," said Laurel E. Miller, lead author of the study and a senior policy analyst with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Past experience throughout the world shows that obstacles to democracy can be overcome. But there is no one-size-fits-all template to forming a democratic government."

Policymakers in the United States and other nations should be wary of "rules of thumb" and simplified predictions of how political change will happen in the Arab world, Miller said. Political transitions will unfold in different ways and at different speeds throughout the region. In every country, though, regime change is only the first step in a long reform process.

The RAND study explores the conditions and decisions that are most likely to influence whether democratization will succeed in the countries undergoing political transitions across the Arab world. It also identifies the main challenges to democracy in the Arab world, analyzes how other countries have made similar transitions over the last four decades, and suggests what the United States and the international community can do to support political change.

One of the biggest challenges for these nations undergoing change will be rebalancing civil-military relations, Miller said. In some countries, militaries played a large role in supporting the authoritarian regimes and continue to possess both political and economic power. As these countries make the transition to new forms of government, some militaries may agree to a shift to civilian control in exchange for certain privileges and perks, often written into new or amended constitutions.

Miller said rebalancing of civilian and military power is likely to happen only gradually in nations where the military retains enough power to thwart democratization. Easing the military out of politics will require negotiation.

Another challenge for these countries will be the inclusion of numerous political groups, including some banned by the previous regimes. Inclusion of these groups can enhance a new regime's legitimacy and help stabilize the transition.

Democratization also will test how well Islamic and secular parties can share political space, Miller said. Islamism is a distinctive feature of Arab political culture, but the parameters of political Islam in Arab countries undergoing political change have yet to be defined. Some of these countries may, like Turkey and Indonesia, develop Islamist parties that play active roles in electoral politics within democratic systems.

It is important to maximize opportunities to promote institutional reform and help democratic processes work better, Miller said. Focusing on the development of civilian democratic control over security institutions—particularly police institutions—also will be key. U.S. policymakers should recognize that the nation has less leverage in the Arab world than it did during democratic transitions in Europe and South America. However, U.S. economic assistance is more likely to provide leverage in aid-dependent countries.

Although democratic reform has lagged in the Arab world, the region does have a few hybrid regimes, including Lebanon, Kuwait and Iraq, that combine elements of democracy and authoritarianism. The Arab world also includes monarchies and, prior to the Arab Spring, several republics led by long-ruling autocrats.

Scholars have debated the reasons for the authoritarian resilience in the Arab world. But the RAND study notes that a country is not excluded from becoming a democracy because it has no past experience with democracy, is surrounded by nondemocratic countries or experiences a rocky political transition.

Nations such as Romania and Portugal, among others, illustrate that tumult early in a transition does not doom democracy if where there are sufficient countervailing forces to keep reform on track. Another example is the transition of Mongolia into a parliamentary republic in the 1990s, despite it being a poor country with no previous democratic experience and no genuinely democratic neighbors. These examples should persuade policymakers to remain open-minded about the prospects for rooting democracy in poor soil, researchers say.

The study, "Democratization in the Arab World: Prospects and Lessons from Around the Globe," can be found at Other authors of the study are Jeffrey Martini, Stephen Larrabee, Angel Rabasa, Stephanie Pezard, Julie E. Taylor and Tewodaj Mengistu.

The study is a product of the RAND Corporation's continuing program of self-initiated independent research. Support for such research is provided, in part, by donors and by the independent research and development provisions of RAND contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers.

Research for the study was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the United Combatant commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.