In the days of the Arab Spring, we were all intoxicated by the sight of millions gathered in public squares to protest dictatorial governments. We hoped this would culminate in liberal democracy in the Arab world. Two years later, it’s clear the prospects in the region are mixed. It turns out the key is not people power but paper power; the focus should be less on elections and more on constitutions.
This should have been clear to anyone who looked at the history of transitions to democracy. While many former Eastern Bloc countries have become liberal democracies, the 15 former Soviet republics have not fared as well. Nine are dictatorships, and the other three — Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova — are, in the words of Stanford scholar Larry Diamond, “illiberal, even questionably democratic and unstable.”
Why? There is a vigorous academic debate about the conditions that allow democracy to flourish. The most powerful single correlation remains one first made by the social scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, who pointed out in 1959 that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.” But there are other intriguing correlations. Countries in Europe, even relatively poor ones, have done better than others. Former British colonies have done better than those of other countries.
Along with several others, I have argued that countries with strong traditions of the rule of law tend to develop a democratic culture that also protects individual rights. In the West, for example, legal protections for life, liberty and property developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Only much later came universal adult suffrage. Liberty preceded democracy, not the other way around. What distinguishes the U.S. is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic it is, with an unelected Supreme Court, a Senate that is one of the two least representative upper legislative bodies in the world and a Constitution and Bill of Rights that expressly limit the power of a democratically elected government.
Poor developing countries should place an even greater weight on the rule of law. It’s crucial that before the first elections, before politicians gain enormous legitimacy through the polls, a system be put in place that limits governmental power and protects individual liberty and the rights of minorities.
In Iraq and Egypt, people power took precedence over paper power. Occupation authorities in Iraq were forced to hold early elections that empowered Shi‘ite religious parties with ties to Iran and an appetite for authoritarianism. In Egypt the best-organized (though not overwhelmingly popular) political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, won at the polls and seems uninterested in genuine liberal democracy.
Compare those misfortunes with those of two small Arab monarchies: Morocco and Jordan. In 2011 both countries enacted constitutional reforms that transferred some of the King’s powers to an elected legislature. National elections in both countries have brought Islamists to the forefront, but they must share power and exist within a system that respects certain rights and rules. Of course, both countries remain authoritarian — but if they keep moving forward on reforms, they might end up providing their citizens with stability, the rule of law and finally liberal democracy.
The lessons of the past suggest that the next country moving from dictatorship to democracy should first work to get its constitution right and only then hold elections. After all, the U.S. ratified its constitution in 1788; only after that, nearly a year later, came its first presidential election.