Another case for a strong civil society

Why does democracy often struggle for survival in the Middle East? Fareed Zakaria explores that question in his latest TIME column.

Zakaria turns to Harvard economics professor Eric Chaney for an interesting finding:

[T]he democracy deficit today exists in lands that were conquered by Arab armies after the death in A.D. 632 of the Prophet Muhammad. Lands that the Arabs controlled in the 12th century remain economically stunted today. This correlation is not simply a coincidence. Scholars from Montesquieu to Bernard Lewis suggest that there was something in the political development of the Arab imperial system that seemed to poison the ground against economic pluralism. Arab imperial control tended to mean centralized political authority, weak civil society, a dependent merchant class and a large role for the state in the economy. Chaney documents the latter, showing that the government’s share of GDP is 7% higher on average in countries that were conquered by Arab armies than in those that were not. He also finds that countries in the first group have fewer trade unions and less access to credit, features of a vibrant civil society.

Zakaria focuses much of the rest of his column on that factor of civil society:

The real problem in a country like Egypt is that the military continues to keep power concentrated, undivided and unchecked. It maintains the central role in the economy. Even when it has liberalized control of the economy, it has done so to benefit a handful of cronies and friends. The chief challenge in the Arab world remains to create a vibrant civil society, which means political parties and also a strong, self-sustaining private sector. The term civil society was coined during the Scottish Enlightenment to describe the activities of private businesses, an independent force that existed between the government and the family. The Middle East today has strong families and strong governments, but everything in between is underdeveloped.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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