Based on the democratization experiences of other countries, what are the chances that the Arab Spring will lead to a flowering of democracy? In a new book, RAND Corporation experts extensively analyze past democratization examples over nearly four decades and analyze the Arab revolutions that up-ended longstanding authoritarian regimes.

Laurel Miller and Jeffrey Martini of the RAND Corporation discussed what the successes and setbacks of other transitions from authoritarianism suggest about the problems ahead for Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, and how they might be overcome. Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers discussed and Marina Ottaway moderated.

Aims of the Book

  • Challenges and Lessons: The book examines the challenges to democratization in the Arab world and how similar challenges were overcome in other contexts, in an attempt to draw lessons from the experiences, Miller said.
  • Role of International Community: Miller stated that the book also explores the possible role for the international community as these transitions occur.
  • Long-Term View: The book argues for a long-term view of the political transitions in the Arab world as they can appear quite tumultuous in the short term. A long-term view is necessary for several reasons, Miller added, including:

    • In the early stages of a transition, coups and mutinies may be attempted, but may not necessarily influence the long-term prospects for democratization.

    • Deep, systemic changes require time.

    • Short-term crises should not be confused with the failure of democratization.
  • Wide Breadth of Study: The new RAND book is significant because it looks wider and deeper into the range of transitional experiences over the last 40 years, instead of focusing on only one other region for comparison, Carothers noted.
  • Caution: Carothers warned that he was cautious of lessons and analogies because institutions and policies in each country can appear comparable but in reality vary greatly, citing the different roles played by militaries in Egypt and several Latin American countries.

Lessons for the Arab World

  • No Obstacles: There are no insurmountable obstacles to democratization in the Arab world, Miller argued. Current leadership and policy decisions can have a greater impact on the transition to democracy than the structural and historical factors previously cited as obstacles to democracy in the region.
  • Civil-Military Relations:

    • Dominant Role: Martini emphasized that the military has been dominant in Egyptian politics since 1952 and continues to play a strong role today.

    • Issues of Contention: Martini highlighted several issues of contention concerning the military during Egypt’s transition, which include: the military’s budget and tax advantages; the power of appointment and promotion within the military; the legal status of the military; and the power to determine Egypt’s national security policy.

    • Negotiations and Concessions: Looking cross-nationally in cases where the military retains power and oversight, negotiations—in which concessions or special prerogatives are offered—have been necessary to ease the military out of power, Miller argued.
  • Inclusion of Formerly Banned Groups:

    • Inclusion of Islamists: Martini stated that the inclusion of Islamists in the political sphere is a net positive for democratization in the Arab world because the exclusion of those forces delegitimizes the government and strengthens the Islamists as an opposition force rather than tests their governing ability.

    • Inclusive Approach: Looking cross-nationally, an inclusive approach during transitions has been good, Miller argued.
  • Structural Factors: Carothers argued that structural factors, such as experience with pluralism, economic level, concentration of wealth, social and political cohesion, and the role of international actors, are important and do not paint an overall positive picture about the possibility for democratization in the Arab world, stressing that one must also include the Gulf in any examination of the politics of the region.
  • First Elections: Carothers highlighted one of the lessons from the book—that how first elections go is not very consequential in the long term—as an important lesson for the U.S. policy community, which tends to focus on first elections.
  • Backsliding: Institutional development is key to prevent democratic backsliding, Miller stated.
  • Economic Problems: Carothers questioned one of the lessons in the book—that economic problems are not determinative of the course of democratization—and pointed to Russia as a major exception to this trend.