Against the backdrop of the continued failure of democratic transition in the Arab world and the fading interest on the part of Western governments, at both the rhetorical and practical levels, in the "promotion of Arab democracy", a rich and enjoyable discussion is unfolding in Western academic and intellectual circles. Its subject is the concept of "democratic sequencing" and the references to the experiences of Arab societies, in this context, are remarkably frequent.
Over the course of the last third of the 20th century, many countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa underwent a series of political changes that moved them away from authoritarian and dictatorial rule and towards new arrangements for conducting relations between citizens and states, permitting for greater degrees of political openness and competition. In the 1970s, Western scholars began to wonder what their governments could do to encourage such transformations so as to promote stable governments of a liberal democratic nature. Interest in the question of how to stimulate the "third wave of democracy" (a term coined by Samuel Huntington) outside the West reached its peak in the 1990s following the collapse of the communist orders in Central and Eastern Europe and the rise of the banners of democracy, freedom, human rights and market economy in these regions. Western euphoria over this burgeoning of democracy inspired a virtually absolutist belief in the historically imperative global victory of liberal democracy (a conviction expressed in Francis Fukuyama's end of History theory). Nevertheless, resistant democratisation in such major countries as the Russian Federation and China, in spite of their having shifted to a market economy, and the continued lack of the bare beginnings of democratisation in such vital regions as the Middle East and Central Asia eventually dampened the euphoria.
Thus by the second half of the 1990s US and European administrations had trimmed back their enthusiasm for promoting democratisation outside the West to a simple set of instruments and practices aimed primarily at the protection of human rights and civil liberties. The efficacy of these measures varied considerably from one region to another and from one country to another. The Bush years from 2000 to 2008 saw a sudden upsurge in the West's championing of democratisation abroad. However, its means of doing so was to turn it into an instrument for justifying and carrying out the invasion and occupation of Iraq, thereby miring it in rampant chaos, the breakdown of security and sectarian conflict. This debacle furnished abundant evidence to substantiate the claims of sceptics on the inevitability of the universal victory of democracy and to back the arguments of those who maintain that democratisation entails much more than just organising free elections and political party competition.
Today, that ebb and flow in the West's support for democracy abroad forms the intellectual framework for the discussion on democratic sequencing. The basic idea that underlies this concept (and that has given it its name) is that for democratisation to succeed a set of social and political conditions must be met first. Prime among these are the rule of law and the stability and neutrality of state institutions. Without these prerequisites, such mechanisms and features as periodic elections, the rotation of authority, political plurality and diversity in civil society entities become no more than window dressing, devoid of true democratic substance and results. In fact, according to such political scientists as Edward Mansfield, Jack Snyder and Samuel Huntington, who cited the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon, to hold periodic elections (whether legislative or presidential) as a mechanism for managing political competition in societies that are not first endowed with stable, impartial and effective institutions of law and bureaucracy will only exacerbate social tensions and allow sectarian and ethnic disputes to permeate public space, the effect of which would be to weaken the authority of the state and increase the risk of the collapse of government and civil war. These political scientists conclude that nothing positive is to be gained from holding elections in Iraq, Lebanon or similar Arab societies under their current circumstances and that their political elites would be wiser to spend their and their societies' energies on building rational and durable institutions of government, rather than wasting society's resources and people's time on meaningless elections.
The proponents of the theory of democratic sequencing argue for other prerequisites. One is the general acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the state within its recognised boundaries and of the citizenship bond as established in its constitutional and legal framework. There should also be larger numbers and greater diversity in the political and economic elites that exercise authority at the national and local levels so as to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a few and to enable an element of separation of powers and mutual checks and balances.
Proponents of democratic sequencing contrast the contemporary state of Arab countries with the experience of Western European countries, most of which were established and popularly accepted as nation states centuries before they democratised. They point to the experiences in Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen in which the conflict over the nature and the identity of the state continues to blaze and where the relationship between the citizenship bond and primary ethnic and sectarian allegiances has not been settled institutionally. They also refer to the heavy concentration of power in the hands of a few in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf countries, and the consequent heavy domination of the executive authority over the judicial and legislative authorities, which are palpably weak in scope and powers. This they juxtapose with the development of extensive and diverse networks of economic and political influence and power in Western Europe and North America (products of the processes of modernisation, industrialisation and urbanisation) prior to the transition to democracy.
Beyond the immediate realm of government and law, they suggest another prerequisite for the transition to a sustainable democracy, namely a degree of economic growth and a coherent middle class. Interestingly, however, they are convinced -- and historical and contemporary experiences seem to bear them out -- that authoritarian governments are better able to guarantee economic growth and the development of the public services that a middle class needs to flourish, such as education and healthcare, than governments that are democratised prematurely, before the socio- political circumstances are right. Many are the comparisons that are drawn in this regard. Singapore, governed in an authoritarian manner and very successful in its standard-of- living performance at various levels, is contrasted with South Africa that democratised only to find its economic and social troubles aggravated. A similar juxtaposition is made between Venezuela, which democratised in the 1950s and, since, has experienced constant social upheaval and military coups, and Chile that in spite of a brutal dictatorship achieved high levels of economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s, paving the way to a smooth and successful transition to democracy. In the Arab world, the economic and social disasters that Algeria endured in the 1990s, following the "premature" introduction of democratic reforms, are contrasted with rising standards of living in politically unreformed Tunisia during the same period and with the improved economic performance of Egypt in spite of the failure of democratic transition.
Proponents of democratic sequencing have used the experiences of the Arab world in various ways and contexts to back their caution against reducing democratisation to mere form (periodic elections and rotation of authority) without substance (the host of institutional, social and economic conditions that are needed for democracy to take root and perpetuate itself).
However, they left two points unsaid, and these were picked up on by such critics of democratic sequencing as Fukuyama, the widely acclaimed expert on democracy promotion Thomas Carothers, and Stanford University sociology and political science professor Larry Diamond. The first is that the democratic sequencing advocates ignored a number of successful transitions to democracy in countries where the abovementioned prerequisites had not been fulfilled: destitute India, Switzerland and Canada, with the disputes between their major ethnic groups over the nature and identity of the state, and Japan, where political and economic power and influence had been concentrated into a few hands before democracy was imposed on it following its defeat in World War II. The second point, with regards to which critics also bring into play references to Arab experiences, is that the weakness of the rule of law and the lack of institutionalised government in many authoritarian societies, combined with disinterest on the part of the ruling elites in promoting the rule of law and institutionalised government for fear that this might detract from their powers and privileges, have very detrimental repercussions. The fact that such phenomena help breed corruption and social injustice and ultimately curtail healthy economic growth and threaten social harmony demands, in and of itself, support for the transition to democracy, even given the risks and possibly high costs of such a drive.