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Democracy in the Arab World

Leader: Dr Youssef M. Choueiri, University of Manchester

It is clearly the case that democratic institutions and practices have recently been singled out as indicators of the ability of national cultures to adapt themselves to a new international configuration of political, economic and technological forces. Countries across continents formerly associated with totalitarian and authoritarian types of state have finally joined what has been dubbed the third wave of democracy or democratisation. Following the eruption of ‘the Arab Spring’, these optimistic diagnoses have now been extended to include the future of the Arab world. In other words, whereas globalisation is deemed sufficiently powerful to induce and set in motion a process of democratisation in the rest of the world, the development of democracy in the Arab World is no longer singled out as an exceptional case.
While some theoretical approaches still allude to a cluster of perennial factors, such as Islam or family structures, as explanatory devices accounting for the lack of democracy in the Arab World, despite its spring, others use more sophisticated methodologies based on concepts tied to their historical context and social space. Consequently, these new approaches have shifted the debate away from the familiar perennial terrain, thereby according greater importance and paying closer attention to the internal dynamics of political transition, aborted patterns of socio-economic development and the characteristics of civil society. Moreover, the international context, riven by rivalries and competitive policies of its major powers, has been incorporated in this explanatory scheme.

Hence, one has to narrate and analyse the emergence and development of democratic norms and institutions as part of an historical process that began to unfold at the beginning of the 19th century. By doing so, one is able to gauge and measure the internal pace of democratic change, on the one hand, and try to capture its significance in setting future trends, on the other. Moreover, a history of democracy is meant to rehabilitate local contexts and cultures as analytical instruments capable of shedding light on the ramifications of political practices as well as responses to external challenges.

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