Democracy In The Middle East


A lot of confusion and uncertainties have occurred when people have been have been called upon to explain what the term ‘democracy’ was. Some of the reasons behind the existing uncertainties have been linked to the many undeniable flaws and forms that the term has become to be associated with. The term democracy remains meaningful even though its manifestations in various cultures and times may differ in significant respects (Wood 2004, p.3). In helping us understand better the meaning of democracy, this paper goes an extra mile to analyse the various secondary literatures that addressed the meaning of this term. A conclusive interpretation of the term is then provided at the end of the analysis.

The word democracy originated from two Greek words; “demos” referring to “people” and “kratein” referring to “govern” or to “rule”. In reference to its components, Becker and Raveloson (2008) gave the literal definition of democracy as government of the people or government of the majority (p.4). The two scholars note that Abraham Lincoln’s widely adopted definition of democracy traced its source from this literal meaning. According to Lincoln ((1809-1865)) democracy was defined as the government of the people, by the people and for the people. To help us understand Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy, Becker and Raveloson (2008) expounded Lincoln’s definition as incorporating 3 broad subjects: a government that comes from the people; a government that is exercised by the people, and for the peoples’ own rights (p.6). Ressler (2009) introduced another dimension to the understanding of the term democracy when he argued that in asking what democracy was, one was relating 2 conditions of the current parliamentary representative democracies and the different approaches to what a more democratic system ought to resemble and the type of organizational forms it could take.

On its part, The US Department of State (2008) basically defined democracy as a government in which the Supreme power was vested in the people. To them, democracy was exercised through large societies electing their representatives. According to this department, the word democracy has been synonymously interchanged with freedom, though this should not be the case. In highlighting the difference between the two confusing words, The US Department of State (2008) noted that democracy was the superior term amongst the two since other than consisting of a set of ideas and principles about freedom; it also consisted of practices and procedures that had been modelled through a long, often tortuous history. Kolar (2005) went ahead to stress that democracy meant that all the people in a state ought to have a say in one way or another in everything that affected their lives. Drawing from Kolar’s thinking, democracy can only be considered as being representative if the elected representatives regularly consult their electorates before making commitments to matters that affect their lives.

From Hilla University’s Lecture for Humanistic Studies (2004), democracy was defined in terms of 4 key elements that included: a political system for choosing and replacing governments through free and fair elections, the active participation of people, as citizens, in politics and civic life, protection of human rights of all citizens and a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. Wood (2004) in trying to come up with an all encompassing definition for what democracy was, went on to list the key characteristics upon which a state can be taken to be upholding democratic principles. The listed characteristics of a democratic state are that elections are open to participation to all citizens; each vote is of equal value, voters have real or free choices, citizens have an open access to information and the availability of a rule of law that guarantees freedom to the citizens (Wood 2004, p.2). From Wood’s research, democracy should be considered as manifesting one of the most adored fundamental aspiration in human species; the aspiration for freedom.

To Pilkington (1997), the definition of democracy must incorporate the concepts of government by consent and the popular consent of lending legitimacy to the government rather than the mechanics of how the people as a whole can be involved in a participatory sense (p.5). From his works, it is clear that ‘true’ or ‘direct’ democracy should envisage a legislative and governmental process that involves all society members. In addition, Woolf (2009) looked at democracy as a system by which nations were governed (p.4). In line with his study, the following can be identified as the major components upon which the success or failure of democracy be assessed in a state: legislatures, executives, judiciaries, electoral systems, pressure groups and the media (Woolf 2009, p.22-27). Though ‘pure’ democracy calls for the people to regularly attend meetings to discuss issues that affect them mostly in small groups, Woolf (2009) notes that this is impractical in today’s world because of the millions of peoples who have accustomed themselves with details of every political issue in their countries (p.5).

Democracy in the Middle East

In analyzing the introduction of democracy into the Middle East region, it is vital if we begun by first defining what colonialism stands for. Colonialism, in earlier times, was defined as a historic phenomena supported by the notion that certain territories and people require and beseech denominations, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with denominations (Page 2003, p.496). However, the current definition of colonialism simply states that, “colonialism is marked by a state’s successful claim to sovereignty over a foreign land” (Mahoney 2010, p.2).

The Muslim World has had a long history of authoritarianism, tribal, religious and cultural sectarianism (Ben-Meir 2006). Until recently, experts had noted that the level of transforming political institutions across Middle East regions had not looked promising. Most countries in the region were faced with obstinate domestic and external obstacles that made adoption of democracy to seem like a distant dream (Brown & Shahin 2009, p.3). Paths to political transitions were away from obvious, and the commitment of key persons or actors to practical realities of democracy that existed at those times would have provided a lot of room for questioning. However, the democratic situation across many Middle East countries has been gradually changing thus providing signs of hope that the region might eventually become fully democratised. Current Middle East states where democracy has been slightly embraced include: Israel (the leading Islamic nation to embrace democracy), Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain amongst others. The reasons behind the introduction of democracy in these states have been varying from many experts and scholars. This paper therefore goes ahead to analyze the different views as adopted across the world over widely adopted claims of whether the colonialists were behind the current introduction of democracy across the Middle East Region.

Though there have been lingering questions on whether democracy was introduced in these states by colonialists, it should be clearly be stated that it wasn’t. The British and French colonialists suppressed national movements within the colonized Middle East states (Alkady 2004, p.38).In fact, throughout the Arab world, the colonial forces suppressed nationalist movements and attempts to hold democratic elections (Valkins 2011). This, according to principles of pure democracy, this suppresses and limits the growth and development of democracy.

Many non-Muslim nations agree that Western neo-colonialists, led by the USA, should be credited for having initiated measures that went in great length in promoting democracy across the regions; though many Muslims have not bought into this notion.

The US Government came to embrace the introduction of democracy across the

Middle East when the Bush Administration officials came to reject the idea that authoritarian Arab regimes constituted the bulwark against Islamic radicalism in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (CRS Report for Congress 2006, p.5). The CRS Report for Congress (2006) goes ahead to stress that US’s change of heart to embrace the idea of democratizing the Middle East was the main reason behind the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, a Middle East country whose citizens had never seen the signs of political “freedom”. In embracing democracy across the region, it is highlighted that active combat phases in the Middle East region by the USA were followed with “A Forward Strategy of Freedom in the Middle East” (CRS Report for Congress 2006, p.5). According to the Tschirigi, (2007)the following excerpts taken from the former US Presidents speech of November 5, 2003 emphasized the facilitation role at which colonialists greatly contributed in introducing democracy across the Middle East. The former US president, Mr. Bush, was eluded to have said that, “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.” (Tschirigi 2007, p.39).

Many scholars have referred to the above statement as having been the turning point in embracing democracy across the Middle East. For instance, David and Gondin (2006, p.129) confirmed to this view when he postulated that although Bush had alluded to the need for developing democracy in Arab States since 2002, his elements in the speech affirmed to his intentions. Amongst the deductions made from the elements in his speech was that Islam and democracy were no longer incompatible and that it was wrong for Western Nations to have previously favoured the flourishing of stability in the Middle East at the expense of freedom (David and Gondin 2006, p.129). On his part, Sterba (2009), in justifying the strong implication the speech had on the adoption of democracy in the Middle East, had gone on to laud the speech as a new policy-a forward strategy of freedom that emphasized or resembled the same persistence, energy and idealism as in Europe, Asia and every region of the world where democracy had been successfully adopted.

However, the USA strategy of invading some Middle East nations in the name of embracing democracy had also received critiques from some sections of the community who held different views. For instance, according to Sterba (2009, p.585), the obvious reason for invading Middle East countries of Iraq and Afghanistan was majorly to benefit from the many energy resources available in the regions. Moreover, Tschirigi (2007, p.39-40) in critiquing the US strategy, had gone on to say that Bush had casted doubt on his own optimism when he insisted that while democratic governments reflected their own cultures, they were required to also exhibit common essential principles of rule of law, healthy civic institutions, political parties, labour unions, independent newspapers, religious liberty and rights of women.

To add on that, Ben-Meir (2006) noted that Western nations could not claim responsibility for having introduced democratic reforms in the Middle East since any initiative to introduce democratic reforms in the region involved the full support of gradual reforms, which many Western powers were not ready to adhere to.

In analyzing the principal sources of political liberalization in the Middle East, Sayari and others (1993) unanimously agreed that the process of change in the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes was more heavily influenced by the defensive strategies of incumbent elites than by a groundswell of support for democracy amongst the people in the Middle East. For example, some of the region’s authoritarian leaders and regimes viewed controlled political liberalization and the creation of institutionalized channels through parliaments, elections and parties as a means of overcoming the mounting crisis of legitimacy that they faced (Sayari et al. 1993, p.4). As such, they embraced democracy when they allowed some few representative processes and institutions to provide outlets upon which Muslim people expressed their popular discontent and grievances. This was done without endangering the regimes dominant political roles.

The challenge that was posed by the Islamic fundamental movements was also reviewed as another principal reason for adoption of political reforms across the Middle East (Hunter 2005, p.193). The emergence of Islamic forces to capitalize on economic and social problems, especially on some grievances of the poor urban people may have also contributed a great deal in introducing democracy in the Middle East. These Islamic forces provided democratic openings when they held governments accountable for their actions. As a result of their increased pressures, authoritarian Middle East regimes decided to incorporate some of the leaders from these Islamic forces into their governments thus providing room for political freedom hence democracy.


In conclusion, though the “full” definition of democracy continues to be elusive in the modern society, it should be emphasized that only institutional pre-requisite can help in narrowing down to an identical meaning of the term. These six major institutional prerequisite for ‘full democracy’ are elected officials, free and/or fair frequent elections, alternative sources of information, associational autonomy, inclusive citizenship. The listed prerequisites are expressed in different times by citizens’ in different countries.

It is also vital to note that not all governments that are today considered democratic uphold all these pre-requisites in their systems. As such, it will only be proper if we categorised today’s governments into two categories namely ‘fully democratic’ or ‘partially democratic’. Moreover, it is also important to note that the following constitute the essential conditions that can favour the growth and development of democracy across states. These conditions include the civilian control of police and military institutions, political cultures that are democratic and the absence of foreign power interventions.

From the research above, it clearly emerged that democracy, though still in its raw stages in the Middle East, was, to a small extend, introduced by what we may refer to neo-colonialism by Western powers, USA constituting the major source. Other factors that facilitated introduction of democracy in these states have been the formation of Islamic forces and pressure movements.


Alkadry, M., 2004. Colonialism in a postmodern age: The West, Arabs and “the battle of Baghdad”. [online] (Updated 9 Jan 2004) Available at: HYPERLINK “” [Accessed 5 April 2011].

Becker, P. & Raveloson, 2008. What is democracy? [print] Hamburg: University of Harmburg.

Ben-Meir, A., 2006. Challenges on the road to democracy in the Middle East (part 1). [online] Available at: [Accessed April 5 2011].

Brown, N.J., & Shahin, E.E., 2009. The struggle over democracy in the Middle East: Regional politics and external policies. [print] New York: Taylor & Francis.

CRS Report for Congress, 2006. US democracy promotion policy in the Middle East: The islamist dilemma. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 April 2011].

David, C.H., Gondin, D., 2006. Hegemony or empire? The redefinition of US power under George W. Bush. [print] England: Ashgate Publishing.

Hanson, V.D., 2002. Democracy in the Middle East.vol. 8. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 4 April 2011].

Hilla University for Humanistic Studies, 2004. What is democracy? [online] Available at: [Accessed 04 April 2011].

Hunter, S., 2005. Modernization, democracy and Islam. [print] Washington: ABC-CLIO.

Kolar, M, 2005. What is democracy? [online] Available at: HYPERLINK “” [Accessed 4 April 2011].

Mahoney, J., 2010. Colonialism and postcolonial development: Spanish America in Comparative Perspective. [print] USA: Cambridge University Press.

Page, M.E., 2003. Colonialism: an international social, cultural, and political encyclopaedia. California: ABC-CLIO.

Pilkington, C., 1997, Representative democracy in Britain today. [Print] Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Ressler, O., 2009. What is democracy? [online] Available at [Accessed 4 April 2011].

Sayari, S., Converse, P.E., & The US National Research Council, 1993. Democratization in the Middle East: trends and prospects: Summary of a workshop, [print] Washington D.C.: National Academies.

Sterba, J. 2009. Ethics: The big questions. 2 ed. [print] USA: Wiley-Blackwell.

The US Department of State, 2008. What is democracy? [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 April 2011].

Tschirigi, D., 2007. Turning point: the Arab world’s marginalization and international security after 9/11. [Print] USA: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Vaknin, S., The democratic ideal and new colonialism. [online] Available at: HYPERLINK “” [Accessed 5 April 2011].

Wood, A.T., 2004. Asian democracy in world history. [print] New York: Routledge.

Woolf, A., 2009. Systems of government democracy. [print] UK: Evans Brothers.