Against Democracy, or, Lessons from Tunisia

Firas Modad
9 min readAug 3, 2021

--

One of the most consistent irritants in conversations about governance in the Middle East has been the refrain, “but Tunisia”. To celebrate the fact that it is very likely that we have heard that for the last time in a long while, I have put down a few quick thoughts.

Tunisian President Qais Saiid, a former constitutional law professor who recently suspended Parliament, gave himself prosecutorial powers and was met with wide public acclaim.

Analysts, journalists, foreign policy experts and others often speak as though it is their role to promote democracy in the Middle East. They rarely pause and ask themselves the most obvious question. Have countries in the Middle East that did democratise done well? The answer is a resounding no. People visit and do business in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco or the UAE. None of those is a democracy, though Morocco does hold credible elections. By contrast, the most democratic countries — Iraq, Lebanon and Kuwait — are more or less basket cases. It is therefore incumbent on those who promote or support democracy in the Middle East to explain when it will work and under what conditions. My view is that it will not work, and I offer some observations to support that view.

  1. Proportional representation is disastrous for good governance

Bien pensant liberals who believe any country can be Denmark are obsessed with proportional representation. They believe that it is inclusive, allows all relevant voices into the conversation, and so, thanks to the magic bestowed by diversity, ensures good policymaking. Nothing is farther from the truth. Proportional representation allows the hardly relevant and barely sane to participate in the political discourse, making the conversation louder and more disruptive than it should be. The increased competition forces parties into more radical positions to distinguish themselves from their rivals. Moreover, the more diverse the perspectives, the greater the propensity for endless dialogue for its own sake, or for paralysis, when what is in fact needed is quick decision making. Furthermore, not all voices should be included in political dialogue, just as there is no reason to include the views of medical doctors on questions of plumbing. The range of voices should be kept narrow and focused, to permit a polity to move from discussion to action. Proportional representation acts as an obstacle to sensible decision making, which is the most essential part of governance.

Proportional representation is also a wonderful mechanism for the well-funded to buy a voice — anyone with the financial means to do so can establish a political party and a TV station to push his interests. The more outrageous the political content on the television, the higher the viewership, the greater money to be made and the more politically relevant the television’s financiers. This ensures sufficient division to paralyse governance, as special interests battle it out in Parliament and over the airwaves. And that is exactly why the Tunisian experiment with democracy ended with the people demanding authoritarianism — the cacophony of voices coming out of Parliament was too loud for anyone to govern. People saw that the Tunisian government was unfit to manage day to day affairs, let alone the COVID19 health and economic crisis, and demanded someone, anyone, take charge. This time, the people wanted the fall of the democratic regime, and for an authoritarian regime to take over. The lesson is, if one must have elections, the system should be first past the post to at least ensure a functioning majority that keeps people from taking to the streets.

2. Special interests will always dominate a democratic system

Even as Tunisia could hardly come up with an agricultural policy, a subsidy policy, an industrial policy, or a security policy, it was able to establish a banking policy that satisfied the Financial Action Task Force and ensured that the banking interests were well-protected. Tunisia had been on the FATF grey list. It was seen as high risk for money laundering and terrorism financing. This threatened its banks’ ability to do business. Yet somehow, despite Parliament being so divided it regularly devolved into shouting matches and occasionally worse, Parliament was able to pass the necessary legislation to white-list Tunisia. It was a classic example of democracy working for the few, not the many. This is to be expected. A democratic system implies the need for well-funded campaigns, where aspiring MPs need to gain financing to buy media coverage, send electoral materials and engage in similar acts of narcissism. MPs typically do not fund themselves, but rely on others to finance them. These others are people with actual wealth, who have businesses to run, and simply can treat elected representatives like employees. And when businessmen do end up as MPs, as occurred in Jordan, Tunisia and elsewhere, it is typically to enjoy the benefits conferred by Parliamentary immunity. It is therefore usually the most corrupt businessmen who run for Parliament. A first past the post system usually brings about a two party system that reduces corruption sometimes, but, as we see from American lobbying, not always. It is necessary but insufficient.

3. Democracy does not bring transparency or accountability

Especially in a system of proportional representation where there is a diverse set of actors. A diverse Parliament brought about by proportional representation permits actors to blame one another for paralysis, or failure, or any ill. Responsibility for any particular action is impossible to pin down. It is impossible to assign blame for failure or to give credit for success. Furthermore, the special interests that back elected officials will be able to ensure that rents are divided between them through backroom deals. This is obviously never going to be transparent. Contrast this with an autocratic system, where there is a single leader, who can be assigned blame or credit (and please remember that the insane American tyranophobia is not a shared universal, as not all authoritarian leaders are tyrants). We accept that even the most authoritarian leader will be beholden to some special interests sometimes, but, as we see in Putin’s Russia or in Xi’s China, billionaires can and do get expropriated or even executed. The threats of bankruptcy and death are critical to reining in special interests and imposing on the wealthy some discipline and accountability. Democratic trappings, on the other hand, only serve to give the wealthy the impression of total immunity. If you doubt this, witness how blatantly Big Tech censors dissenting voices. Do you think the CEO of Weibo would dare censor Xi, like Jack Dorsey did to Trump? I doubt that. It is therefore important to remember that the oligarchy will always try to hijack democracy, and that a fearsome executive is needed to rein it in. Throughout the West, and especially in America, the oligarchs are already the real government.

4. Democracy is inherently divisive, especially without monarchy

Democracy is at most a tool to alternate governance between factions that are broadly in agreement on the critical national questions. Rousing the base to go and vote requires political leaders to pretend that their disagreements with their rivals are deeper than they really are, and that the threat from their rivals to their base is larger than is the case. That makes perfect sense — there is little incentive to vote for any party if the current state of affairs is satisfactory. It is necessary to inject fear and to make false promises (balancing the budget, ending abortion, forgiving student loans) in order to ‘rally the base’. This works well enough when there is a professional civil service and a broad national consensus. Once this consensus starts to fray, however, the tools of the trade of democratic competition — division, hyperbole, mudslinging — ensures that it frays at an accelerating pace. The civil service turns political. Things fall apart slowly, then suddenly, as we saw in Tunisia, where deep divisions along secular versus religious lines ensured near constant paralysis.

A corollary of this rule is that the more diverse a society is, the more likely democracy is to lead to paralysis and eventually conflict. People naturally divide into groups. The more important the divisions — be they ethnic, religious, racial or political — the more likely it is that leaders will attempt to dominate their own groups by emphasising divisions and by blaming misfortune or failure on rival groups. This us-vs-them dynamic helps to rally the base and silence challengers from within one’s community, strengthening leaders’ hand as they bargain with the leaders of rival communities. When the ability to bargain inevitably breaks down — because the economy has been too mismanaged, because nepotism has become too entrenched, because enough hateful rhetoric has been pumped for long enough — a very diverse democracy ends in paralysis, state collapse and probably and civil war. Iraq and Lebanon are prime examples of that. Tunisia, being far less diverse, is likely to do far better.

A monarchy can act as a type of check on the ills brought by democracy. In the Middle East and North Africa, the only societies that have done relatively well (emphasis on relatively) despite democratic trappings are Morocco and Jordan. There, a strong monarchy steers the ship of state behind the scenes, while appeasing donor countries, bien pensants and various local rabble rousers and special interests with parliamentary procedures. The monarchy can direct or even suspend democratic life and help spare us from the bleating of self-important MPs. It can hold the civil service accountable and ensure it remains professional. It can provide national symbols and occasions for unity. It can appeal directly to the public over the heads of politicians. It can provide a sense of honour and duty. The lesson is this: if one must have democracy, it is better to have another, more legitimate, more permanent authority overseeing the elected officials.

5. Islamic societies are especially unlikely to be democratic

Islam differs from Catholicism in many respects, one of which is family relations. The Latins banned cousin marriages in the 11th Century. In doing so, they broke up the tribes that dominated Germania, Frankia and other lands the Romans rightly saw as barbarous. This was one factor that paved the way for the rise of individualism. In Muslim societies, cousin marriages are the norm. This has the benefit of making society especially thick and cohesive, pushing people to rally to each other. It also means that all systems, including political systems, are means to benefit relatives. Therefore, nepotism is the norm, not the exception. Indeed, nepotism is a well-ingrained, universal human instinct that makes perfect evolutionary and economic sense — one wants benefits to accrue to those one is related to by blood, and one wants to concentrate wealth in one’s family. As such, it is the societies that have a low level of nepotism that are exceptional and that need to be studied for explanation. It is safe to assume that nepotism is the norm throughout the world. This is doubly the case in Muslim societies where marriage to relatives is so common. It is best to avoid tinkering with societies at the margins by imposing democracy, when the issues preventing it from taking root are far deeper.

To conclude, it is worth remembering that the most democratic society among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, where Parliament is most powerful and the executive is weakest, is Kuwait. Kuwait is also the most dysfunctional, the least appealing and the least developed Arab Persian Gulf country. Simiarly, Iraq has more wealth in natural resources than anyone can imagine. It is also one of the poorest countries in the region. It has become poorer the longer democracy reigned there, while illiteracy and unemployment rates have steadily risen. Lebanon, likewise, is a basket case, though that does deserve a separate, longer discussion. And in North Africa, each of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria has had some form of regime change. To the extent that the executive was weakened, society as a whole was impoverished and made worse off, with Libya being the most extreme case. The more the state consolidated, the less trouble and violence society experienced. The lesson to be taken is this: an autocratic political system does not always work, but it is the only one that can turn a country around once it starts to fall apart. It can take charge, assign responsibility for mistakes, and, critically, tie the interests of the leader to those of the public. In doing so, it acts as a check on the oligarchic class that stands the most to benefit from democracy.

Tunisia’s transition was the most civilised, both to and away from democracy, and in that it was exceptional. However, this was not thanks to democracy, but it was thanks largely to the benevolence of previous authoritarian governments that ruled that land, which managed to be inclusive and respectful of their society even as they slowly improved it, and the relative uniformity of Tunisian society. After the fall of autocratic government in Tunisia in 2011, multiple centres of power that had been established under autocratic rule were able to negotiate compromises, in spite of the fact that the electoral process kept putting spanners in the wheels. Now, with Qais Saiid taking the reins, it is possible to bring the country forward through a process of wisely inclusive negotiation and firm decision making.

--

--