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Research Questions

  1. What are the main challenges to democratization that Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries experiencing political change are likely to face in the coming years?
  2. How have other countries around the world that emerged from authoritarianism overcome or failed to overcome similar challenges?
  3. What can the United States and the broader international community do to help transitioning countries overcome these challenges and strengthen their fledgling democracies?

Daunting challenges lie ahead for Arab countries where revolutions have upended longstanding authoritarian regimes. These unexpected events created new uncertainties in a troubled region: Would the Arab Spring lead to a flowering of democracy? Would loosening of the political systems in these countries unleash dangerous forces of extremism or ethno-sectarian conflict? Would new autocrats replace the old ones? Through a comparative analysis of past democratization experiences throughout the world over nearly four decades and a detailed look at recent uprisings in the Arab world, Democratization in the Arab World aims to help policymakers understand the challenges ahead, form well-founded expectations, shape diplomatic approaches, and take practical steps to foster positive change. The monograph explores the conditions and decisions that are most likely to influence whether democratization succeeds in Arab countries undergoing political transitions. It identifies the main challenges to democratization in these countries; analyzes how countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa have dealt with similar challenges in the past; and suggests what the United States and broader international community can do to help strengthen fledgling democracies in the Arab world.

Key Findings

Democratization Will Test How Well Islamic and Secular Parties Share Political Space

  • The parameters of political Islam in Arab countries undergoing political change have yet to be defined. They may follow paths similar to Turkey and Indonesia, where Islamist parties have come to play active roles in electoral politics within democratic systems. Expression of religiosity is likely to rise in post-authoritarian Arab countries, but this should be distinguished from demand for Islamist political systems.

Militaries Will Need to Be Subordinated to Civilian Authorities

  • Gradual approaches to shifting the balance of power from military to civilian authorities have contributed to stability during transitions in which militaries have the capability and potential incentives to thwart democratization. Allowing militaries to retain some special prerogatives for a period of time can be helpful, while at the same time building up civilian authorities' capabilities to exercise effective oversight.

Political Inclusiveness Can Stabilize a Transition

  • Inclusion of formerly banned parties or Islamist parties has helped to ensure smooth transitions and enhance a new regime's legitimacy, even where decisions to open the political playing field seemed risky at the time. Establishing democratic ground rules is more important than who wins or loses initial elections.

Economic Problems May Complicate Transitions but Are Not Likely to Derail Democratization

  • In many countries, dissatisfaction with economic conditions helped drive regime change. Though expectations of economic improvement after revolution are high, past experience suggests that failure to improve living standards does not cause reversals to authoritarianism even where it contributes to political turmoil.


  • Take the long view of democratization prospects for the Arab world. Democratization is a complex, multi-dimensional process and can take many years to unfold. Foreign assistance and pressure should be steady over a lengthy period of time. Taking a long view, there are reasons for optimism: Factors tending to contribute to or undermine democratization are not deterministic; democracy has spread to extremely varied terrain around the world, including places previously thought unsuitable; and many transitions have been turbulent and still succeeded.
  • Support institutional reform. Restructuring of political processes and institutions has been crucial to successful democratization. Development of civilian control of security institutions should especially be encouraged. This can be done through new or continued help in professionalizing militaries, reforming police organizations, and improving parliamentary oversight. Police reform is particularly important because police interact closely with the population and can affect a public's calculation of the extent to which democracy has brought real change.
  • Building civil society should also be a priority. Civil society institutions have often helped propel democratization. Aid to independent organizations promoting democracy as well as independent media, anti-corruption and human rights monitoring groups, and organizations that provide civic education should be considered.
  • Encourage creation of mutually reinforcing and supporting structures. Regional structures that create governmental and civil society connections among new democracies could facilitate the delivery of practical institution-building assistance and reinforce democratization through moral suasion. Channeling Western assistance through a regional organization may also be politically more palatable than bilateral assistance for some countries.

"Democratization in the Arab World is both a valuable contribution to the literature on transition and an essential guide for understanding the Arab Spring. While fully recognizing the immense challenges that lie ahead, it argues convincingly for a policy of sustained yet prudent support for the process of democratic transformation that is now only beginning to unfold."

- Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy

"Democratization in the Arab World is an excellent book that fills a need for concise profiles of democratic transitions and the lessons that can be drawn from them. It breaks new ground in very deliberately, thoughtfully, and parsimoniously applying the lessons of theory and experience to the transition processes underway in the Arab world. This book has both academic integrity and great practical value."

- Larry Diamond, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy

This monograph results from 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's contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers.

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