March 31, 2011

A Democratic Middle East?

Look to the region’s economic—and even geographic—history for a hint of its political future.

The Middle East and North Africa are being swept by popular uprisings. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia since 1987, and Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak, who ruled Egypt since 1981, have been forced from power in quick succession, and with minimal bloodshed.

Protesters have taken to the streets in Bahrain, Iran, Syria, and Yemen, causing security forces to crack down, with varying degrees of success, fearful of the outcomes of the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions. Open civil war has broken out in Libya. The participants in all of these movements demand democracy, an end to corruption, and economic opportunity. Will they succeed?

Can democracy succeed in the Middle East?
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

We would like to say that democracy is coming to the Middle East and North Africa, but there are good reasons to curb our optimism. It is one thing to force a tyrant from the presidential palace. It is quite another to create a durable democratic political system.

The states that make up the Middle East and North Africa are among the world’s oldest—and have persistently settled into patterns of autocratic rule since their creation. Egypt has been a territorial state since the first pharaoh in 3150 BC, but it has never once in five millennia experimented with democracy. The overthrow of the Alawiyya Dynasty in 1952 did not produce a republic; it resulted in the dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Contrary to popular belief, present day Iraq has been a recognizable political entity since Sargon of Akkad united the city-states of Mesopotamia by conquest in the 23rd century BC. Although the last Iraqi monarch was overthrown in 1958, he was replaced by Saddam Hussein. Iran has been a state since the creation of the Persian Empire in the 6th century BC. Its last monarch, Shah Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown in 1979, but he was replaced by yet another autocrat, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

What is the underlying factor driving the persistence of autocracy in this part of the world?

Syria has an equally long history. In fact, Damascus is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet. Even before Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, created a dynasty that has endured since 1970, Syria was governed by a succession of tyrants. For a short period, it even united with Egypt as a single country under Nasser. A similar outcome was obtained in Libya when King Idris was overthrown in 1969, bringing Muammar Gaddafi to power. Yemen, too, successfully deposed its monarch in 1962, but he was replaced by the brutal dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

What is the underlying factor driving the persistence of autocracy in this part of the world?

Some pundits have suggested that it is the region's oil wealth. Yet the countries of the Middle East and North Africa were autocracies for centuries before they found oil; moreover, some of them, like Bahrain and Libya, have lots of oil, while others, such as Yemen and Egypt, barely have any.

Others have suggested Islam. Yet Indonesia has become a democracy, and has the largest Islamic population in the world; moreover, many of the persistent autocracies of the Middle East and North Africa, most notably Iran, Iraq, and Egypt, antedate Islam by more than a millennium.

We would suggest that the fact that protestors are demanding both democracy and economic opportunity provides an important clue as to why the region tends to converge on non-democratic political systems. Briefly stated, societies that are characterized by extreme inequality tend not to provide fertile ground for representative political institutions. Not surprisingly, the first democracies—both in antiquity and in the modern era—emerged out of societies composed of citizens who not only had attained high average levels of education, but who were relatively equally matched in terms of their educational endowment and sophistication.

Colonial New England is, of course, the archetype: a society of highly literate, family farmers. What was true about New England was also true, however, about Ancient Athens, 17th Century Holland, 18th Century England, and 19th Century Canada. By the standards of the time, they had social structures that included a sizeable "middle class." There is a good reason why democratic political systems tend to flourish in these kinds of societies: the incentives to rip the society apart in order to redistribute wealth are weak.

Such is not the case in societies where income, education, and opportunity are concentrated in a tiny elite. There, "free and fair elections" become a mechanism for the poor to redistribute wealth. Indeed, there is little to stop the vast, impoverished majority from stopping at the elite’s wealth; why not deny the elite life and liberty as well?

The world’s first and most long-lived democracies were built out of societies of family farmers.

Readers may wonder why new, democratic governments cannot simply remake social structures, such that populist calls for redistribution do not find a large audience? They may also wonder why the Middle East and North Africa have such inegalitarian social structures in the first place.

Research that we are conducting on the long-run determinants of democratic and autocratic political systems suggests that social structures are the outcomes of long historical processes; they are not created by the stroke of a pen. Our research also suggests that the origins of those processes can be located in the basic organization of its economy—not just now, but over the course of its long history.

Basically stated, the world’s first and most long-lived democracies were built out of societies composed of family farmers growing grains and legumes. Such societies gravitated toward family farms because grains and legumes are characterized by modest scale economies in production. They can also be stored almost indefinitely, meaning that a society built upon them can generate an economic surplus. Finally, they can be grown using rain-fed methods of production. This last point is crucial: the fact that there is no need to obtain access to an irrigation system means that the right to water can neither serve as a barrier to entry nor increase the minimum efficient scale of production. The optimal scale of production is the family farm.

A glance at a precipitation map of the world quickly reveals why the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have social structures that are not conducive to democracy: they are among the driest places on earth. With the exception of a few very narrow strips along the Mediterranean, and the river valleys of the Tigris, Euphrates and the Nile, agriculture is virtually impossible. As a result, these societies did not evolve out of family farmers who accumulated surpluses that could fuel a long-run process of economic growth, investment in education, and democratization.

Agriculture is virtually impossible in the Middle East.

Instead, they were populated by tribal, nomadic peoples, such as the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula or the Berbers of North Africa, whose economic raison d’etre was to provide long-distance transport across the desert. Grain agriculture was only possible in a few places where a river, like the Nile, could be harnessed. The economies of scale and barriers to entry imposed by the need to obtain property rights to water gave rise, however, to a society composed of a wealthy elite and a vast, impoverished peasantry. No one owns the rain, but access to irrigation is a natural candidate for concentrated ownership.

A simple exercise provides support for our hypothesis. The Middle East and North Africa are part of a much vaster area of low precipitation, the Afro-Asian Dry Belt, which extends from Mauritania (on Africa’s Atlantic Coast), eastward across Mali, Niger, Chad, and the Sudan, and northwards across Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. It then continues eastwards, encompassing all of the nations of the Middle East, Central Asia, Northwestern China, and Mongolia.

Across that vast stretch of the earth, encompassing a broad range of ethnicities, language groups, and colonial experiences, there is only one country that has managed to sustain a democracy: Israel. The fact that it is the exception suggests the power of our rule: Israel did so on the basis of an immigrant population that brought their human capital with them, allowing them to transform deserts and briny marshes into farmland.

The observations of social scientists, unlike the inscriptions at Karnak and Luxor, are not written in stone. They do, however, provide a guide as to the likely outcome of events in the Middle East--and they suggest that political science, not economics, is the true dismal science.


Stephen Haber, Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and A.A. and Jeanne Welch Milligan Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, is also professor of political science, history, and (by courtesy) economics at Stanford. He has been awarded every teaching prize at Stanford, including the Walter J. Gores Award for distinguished teaching. His research examines political institutions and economic policies that “hold up” innovation. His current research examines the creation of regulatory barriers to entry in finance, the economic and political consequences of hold up problems created by different systems of agricultural production, and the comparative development of patent systems. Haber’s most recent book, Fragile by Design (with Charles Calomiris), examines how governments and industry incumbents often craft banking regulatory policies in ways that stifle competition and increase systemic risk.


Victor Menaldo was a W. Glenn Campbell and Rita Ricardo-Campbell National Fellow at the Hoover Institution for 2009–2010 at the Hoover Institution.


Letters to the editor may be sent to definingideas@stanford.edu. Editors reserve the right to reject or publish (and edit) letters.