Researchers and Reporters Misread the Struggle for Democracy in the Muslim World, Scholars Say

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Social scientists and the news media often display a faulty understanding of the process of democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, three scholars said on Tuesday during a panel discussion at the annual meeting here of the Middle East Studies Association.

The scholars had varying levels of optimism about the near-term prospects for democracy in the region. But all agreed that political scientists and popular writers tend to lean too heavily on religious and cultural explanations for the persistence of tyranny in Arab countries and in the broader Islamic world.

The tenets and institutions of Islam are not necessarily a serious barrier to democracy, said Feriha Perekli, a graduate student in Middle Eastern studies and linguistics at Indiana University at Bloomington. The Islamic tradition of consultative governance is theoretically compatible with modern democratic institutions, she said.

It is more useful, Ms. Perekli said, to look not at religion but at the institutional structures of Arab countries. Borrowing a model developed by Richard Snyder, an associate professor of political science at Brown University, Ms. Perekli argued that most Arab nations today lack the structural conditions that typically foreshadow the emergence of democracy.

First, she said, in most Middle Eastern countries the military is tightly bound to the state. In countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, she said, the top military officials are typically close relatives of the monarchs.

Second, the countries' domestic elites are not highly alienated. Most Middle Eastern regimes, she said, have effectively co-opted their countries' economic elites and have permitted just enough freedom in civil society to provide a safety valve for elite discontent.

Finally, there is no coherent opposition with mass popular support. The divisions between secular and Islamist reform movements, Ms. Perekli said, have prevented the emergence of such a coherent opposition.

Until those three structural conditions change, Ms. Perekli argued, there is not likely to be a successful democratic upheaval. "This is not an optimistic picture," she said.

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