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Introduction: In Search of Economic Policies to Stabilise Democratic Transitions

Giacomo Luciani Abstract

Democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa have mostly failed to consolidate and have been hindered by the difficult economic heritage of previous authoritarian governments. Yet newly established democratic governments must deliver on the expectations of their people, especially the poorer strata, otherwise disillusionment may open the door to restoration of authoritarian rule. The introductory chapter reviews existing literature on the topic and presents the contributions of the collective volume to this crucially important discussion. Can democracy succeed? Various ideas for economic policies that may help consolidate the democratisation process are proposed, while major obstacles on the way to democratic success are also highlighted.


With the solitary exception of Tunisia, where a still fragile process of democratic consolidation appears to be making progress in the face of multiple challenges, the Arab Spring has led to either a restoration of authoritarian rule (in Egypt, and in Bahrain and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (ccc)) or civil war (in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen).

This state of affairs is obviously unsettling. For decades the political economy debate about the Middle East and North Africa (mena) has focused on the causes and negative consequences of authoritarianism, and has preached democratic good governance, promising instantaneous and almost unconditionally improved growth and integration into the globalisation process (Acemoglu et al., 2014; World Bank 2016). Then an opportunity for transition to democracy arises—largely unexpected and certainly unpredicted—and almost universally fails. Unavoidable questions then confront us: is democracy possible? Is it desirable? How can we increase the chances for newly established democratic governments to deliver and consolidate?

The Arab Spring has encouraged a broad debate concerning its causes; less so about how it might develop. Much of the literature has focused on ideology, © GIACOMO LUCIANI, 2017 | DOI 10.1163/9789004336452_002

This is an open access chapter distributed under the terms of the cc -BY-NC License.

identity and longing for human dignity (Achcar, 2013; Hanieh, 2013; Kamrava, 2014; Selvik and Utvik, 2016). The analysis has mostly been conducted at the level of individual countries; the regional dimension of the phenomenon has generally not been recognised and explained. Economic causes of discontent are frequently mentioned, but are rarely supported by empirical data (notable exceptions are Alvaredo and Piketty, 2014; Azmeh, 2014; Beinin, 2016; Hakimian, 2013a and 2013b; Luciani, 2016; Nugent, 2012; and Verme et al., 2014).

It is of course necessary to form a better understanding of the causes and meaning of the Arab Spring in order to meaningfully discuss its eventual failure. That said, the focus of this collection is not on the causes, but on the dilemmas that governments in power, whether incumbent or issuing from a democratic transition, must face in addressing the unresolved underlying issues that led to the revolt. Important recent contributions that have addressed in a similar manner the issue of post-revolution economic policies include, notably, works of Magdi Amin et al. (2012), Hafez Ghanem (2016a), Schiffbauer et al. (2015), and the World Bank (2014).

What needs to be done to deliver the minimum improvement in living conditions that will convince the people that indeed things are changing for the better? Can a democratic government implement the measures necessary? Or do we still need a degree of authoritarianism before a successful democratic transition is conceivable? What can the democratic world do to support the consolidation of democratic transitions? Or should democratic countries accept that an authoritarian parenthesis is inevitable and keep searching for the oxymoron: a democratising authoritarian government?

For Europe at least, these are not just academic questions. The civil wars, restorations of authoritarian rule, and developmental failures in the Middle East and North Africa have led to an unprecedented wave of refugees and economic migrants that the European Union and other European countries are unable to deal with. Faced with a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions, Europe is falling apart, turning into not one, but multiple fortresses. It is a political return to the Middle Ages, where localism and defence against encroachment from outside are the leading values.

If democracy is to be saved, it has to be saved everywhere. In a globalised world, it is simply impossible to be indifferent to the fate of neighbouring countries. The European Union (eu) has long had a concept of its ‘neighbourhood’ and formulated policies—on paper at least—to support the respect of human rights, and good governance and democracy. The fact is that policies adopted so far have accomplished nothing, and have almost exclusively been disasters. In its latest revision the European Neighbourhood Policy appears to have abandoned any ambition to foster democratisation (Schuhmacher, 2016). Is there anything that could be done better? Are we following the right recipes?

We badly need to engage in this debate, and academics have a moral duty to put their minds to it.

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