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WHEN one looks at the data on economic competitiveness, social services, education, infrastructure, mobile phone use, the African-Arab countries, especially Tunisia and Egypt, are usually among the top 10.
However, when it comes to press freedom and political freedom, the Northern African Arab-speaking and Muslim countries simply disappear and end up at or near the bottom.
This brings to mind an article earlier in the year in the Journal of Democracy, which examined the wider question of “Why are there no Arab democracies?”
The author, Larry Diamond, makes the point that religion (Islam) cannot be the reason why there are no Arab democracies, because there are several Islamic countries that are nearly modern democracies–Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Africa’s own Senegal, etc. He mentions the corrupting influence of oil, but still that is not a good enough explanation for me.
My own take is that the desert also has something to do with it. Countries (and within countries, regions) that are near or surrounded by desert or semi-desert conditions tend to be illiberal. Even in an old democracy like the USA, Texas politics has a reactionary ring to it that you won’t find in Massachusetts. Australia is a modern democracy, but its treatment of its Aboriginal people is shameful. The Kalahari Desert bequeathed us narrow-minded racist/apartheid regimes in South Africa and present-day Namibia. Israel’s treatment of its own Arab – and lately non-Arab – population is embarrassing.
In semi-arid Ethiopia and Eritrea, the big men there rule with hammers and tongs. I think the desert slows down the flow of enlightened ideas.
More significantly, when you look at countries like Egypt, you see that in desert countries you do not have many independent farmers. In Egypt everyone is squeezed along the River Nile. In these countries, therefore, whether you eat or not are often up to the government. The fact that government feeds most people either directly through bread handouts or food subsidies makes the central authority very strong, and people are reluctant to challenge it – or rather they have a high incentive to be obedient to it.
I also think that nomadic and Bedouin societies where camels are important have a very different (long-term) patient mindset that autocrats exploit, as opposed to those where it’s the horse and cow that are the big thing. A dromedary camel has the average life span of 40 years. A horse lives for 25-30 years, while a cow’s lifespan is in the region of 15-20 years; modern dairy cattle are have only a few productive years, and are usually culled after 5-6 years.