If you can cross the road in Cairo, you can understand democracy in the Middle East.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
July 17 2007 12:55 PM

Why Did the Cairene Cross the Road?

To help Americans understand how democracy works in the Middle East.

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Second, and in many ways more important, is the way in which informal institutions can limit what is possible in the political arena. Think about the question of presidential succession in Egypt, where historically a base of support within the military has been an informal requirement of the presidency. Egypt's various constitutions have all specified in detail the procedures for selecting a new president should the incumbent retire, resign, become incapacitated, or die. In practice, though, Egypt's heads of state have been selected through the military—the backbone and defender of Egypt's political order. When Anwar Sadat chose air force Gen. Mohamed Hosni Mubarak to be his vice president in 1976, the move was widely regarded as both Sadat's effort to further undermine his opponents among the cadre of officers who were involved in the 1952 coup and an acknowledgement that the commanders who took part in the 1973 war with Israel would become politically influential. Although constitutionally the speaker of the People's Assembly, rather than the vice president, is next in line to the presidency, there was never any question that Mubarak would succeed Sadat after the latter's assassination in October 1981. As the prospect of a leadership transition in Egypt becomes more urgent given Mubarak's age (he turned 79 in May), there is considerable speculation that his son Gamal will succeed him. Since the younger Mubarak never served in the armed forces, he will need strong ties to the military establishment to secure his position. Indeed, in keeping with the informal institutions that shape Egyptian politics, Gamal is reported to be cultivating connections to the senior command.

Or consider the case of Saudi Arabia, where informal institutions are at work in a somewhat different way. In Washington, the standard narrative often criticizes Riyadh for foot-dragging. The Saudis claim that they have been moving forward with once-unthinkable political and social change. Why the disconnect? Primarily because U.S. officials have very little insight into informal institutions and the effect they have on Saudi politics. King Abdallah is not a king in the absolutist Louis XIV sense. To be sure, Abdallah rules by decree, and he has the final word on all aspects of Saudi domestic and foreign policy, but informal institutions shape the process. Abdallah must engage in protracted consensus-building negotiations among members of the Saudi royal family, heed the concerns of major tribal leaders, and pay attention to the sensitivities of religious constituencies on policy issues of major importance. It's hard for outsiders—even those who live in Saudi Arabia—to see how this process works, because it is rooted in past practices around which certain norms and uncodified rules have developed. The unwritten exigency of consultation with the king's disparate, and at times implicitly hostile, constituencies tends to constrain Abdallah's policy options. Nevertheless, this is a tradeoff that Abdallah and other Saudi leaders are willing to make. According to Saudis, without this consultation, the cohesion and stability of the kingdom would be in jeopardy, raising the specter of a return to tribal conflict in the Arabian Peninsula. From this perspective, Saudi foot-dragging looks more like a measure of pragmatism.

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When you think about how informal institutions shape politics, a much different picture of political change in the Middle East emerges. Suddenly, Washington's recipe for democracy promotion—whipping up some civil society, mixing in some economic reform, and adding elections, as well as a dash of external pressure—seems out of touch with reality. Even if Washington manages to build civil society in the Arab world and generate economic reform, the power of informal institutions will make the job of even the most ardent Middle East democracy-promoters more uncertain and difficult. All is not lost, however. Just as I now feel perfectly safe wandering into Cairo traffic, awareness of the unwritten rules and norms of politics should provide a more accurate reflection of politics in the Middle East and, as a result, a better understanding of how and when change will take place.

Steven A. Cook is the Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.

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