Is ‘democratic peace’ attainable in the Middle East?

Is ‘democratic peace’ attainable in the Middle East?

Analysts have started to see the revolutionary transformations that began last year in the Middle East as a democratizing process in Arab societies that promises peace in the region.

Democratization brings to mind “democratic peace theory,” the supposition that democratic nations don’t go to war with each other. The main presumptions of this theory are that democratic leaders are accountable to the masses, so that they seek other alternatives before deciding on war; they are accustomed to resolving matters through negotiation; and as democracies become wealthier, they avoid going to war. Another point is that democracies don’t go to war with each other but they tend to fight non-democratic regimes.

To what extent is the theory applicable to the Middle East?

In the short term, it is very hard to apply these hypotheses to the Middle East due to some uncertainties. First, it won’t be possible to construct democratic accountability for a few years. It requires a certain time to develop. Second, possible democratic leaders are not coming from a culture of negotiation. On the contrary, most of them are embedded in conflict, exile, torture and jail. Third, it will take a long time to have the redistributive function of democracy settle. Also, attempts at democratization are going to make the population poorer in the short term with the emergence of instability in terms of investment, production and employment. Moreover, it is very probable that there will be a provocation in regional conflicts as “democratic” masses issue urgent demands to their leaders. 

Then we have to ask if peace is possible in the long term. In this case, someone will look at the peculiarities of the Middle East, mainly in terms of two points: regime type and the Israeli factor.

As a result of the democratization of some countries in the region, there is going to be a serious differentiation among Arab regimes, that is, the problem of dichotomy. In the past, all were autocratic, more or less, regardless of their level of wealth. However, as some become democratic (poorer ones), the autocratic character of others is to be very clear (richer ones), which evokes the envy of the poor. The usual outcome is going to emerge as the democratic poor will be more aggressive in intra-Arab issues and highlight the question of re-distribution of wealth on an Arab scale.

In the past, intra-Arab issues were easily resolved by autocrats. But in the coming years, Arab accord will not be easy as democratic leaders are vulnerable to the demands of the masses. It is highly possible that poor but democratic masses will force their governments to even think about remapping the Arab world.

The other problem is Israeli-Arab relations. In the past, autocratic Arab leaders so often used the Israeli issue as an instrument to build their legitimacy and to strengthen their oppressive rule at home.

From the Israeli point of view, it was very convenient to interact with autocratic regimes and to legitimize its own aggressive policies in international society. That corroborates the fourth assumption of democratic peace theory. Aggression by Arab autocrats drew retaliation through Israeli attacks and further expansion. Any negotiation between the parties was conducted easily due to the lack of the autocrats’ accountability, such as the Camp David Agreement. But under new circumstances, Israel is going to find democratic counterparts with whom the negotiation process will be very tough because democratic leaders have a wide base of legitimacy at home. Accordingly, as democratic leaders are accountable to the masses, it will be very difficult for them to accept an agreement favoring Israeli and, more importantly, the U.S. position as well.

In sum, while democratization in the Middle East gives some hope for peace, it seems to be difficult in the short run and expensive in the long run. 

*Davut Ateş is an associate professor at the Department of International Relations at Konya’s Selçuk University.

arab spring,