Problems of Democratization: A Comparative Theoretical and Applied Study

 The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published a new book by Azmi Bishara, Problems of Democratization: A Comparative Theoretical and Applied Study, which provides a summarization of a complex research journey, starting from modernization theories and criticism as the starting point of transition studies, through to 1970s studies of transition to democracy. The book moves on to investigate the outcomes of transition experiences in Arab countries that have hosted revolutions and popular uprisings in an applied study. It determines that transition studies as a field has significant limitations and provides theoretical conclusions as an Arab contribution to the theory of democratic transition. 

The book (624 pp) consists of 16 chapters split into four sections. The first section, comprising five chapters, is titled “The Roots of Transition Studies in Modernisation Theory”. Chapter 1 deals with modernisation theory’s purported “structural conditions” for modernity, which the author contends involve conflation of the conditions under which democracy first arose and the conditions for its existence; he also points out that this idea has been used to justify despotism outside Europe. In Chapter 2, Bishara discusses the concept of legitimacy and its links to democracy, emphasising that while major cleavages in society must be addressed, it is not diversity in itself that is the problem but the politicisation of difference via identity politics. In Chapter 3 he discusses the modernists’ idea of how transition happens, tracing the roots of many of transition theory’s insights to modernisation theory. Chapter 4 contends with the historical role of the bourgeoisie, demonstrating that there is no necessary link between democracy and capitalism, but that modern democracy does require distribution of economic power. Chapter 5 provides an all-round critique of the modernisation approach. The second section of the book, titled “Transitology”, comprises five chapters. 

Chapter 6 introduces the field of transitology. Chapter 7 traces the history of the discipline, emphasising several important recurring insights about the importance of agreement on the state and of rights and institutions. Chapter 8 discusses how the various types of authoritarian regime differ and how this affects the form taken by democratic transition. Chapter 9 addresses critiques of the transition paradigm, which the author denies exists, with responses to all of the major critiques. Chapter 10 returns to the point about consensus on the state, discussing the role of state, nationality and citizenship in democratic transition. 

The third section, “the External Factor and the Culture Question”, comprises two chapters. Chapter 11 discusses the role of external factors in impeding or supporting democratic transition. Chapter 12 deals with established norms and political culture and their importance to the democratic transition process. 

The fourth section, “Theoretical Insights from Arab Experiences”, comprises four chapters. Chapter 13 discusses the differences between revolution and reform, emphasising the need for Arab theoretical contributions and the shortcomings of the western insistence on understanding civil society as NGOs. It asks why Arab regimes have been able to maintain control even after beginning reform processes, contrary to the predictions of theory. Chapter 14 addresses the use of violence in the state-building process, the effects of this on state stability, and the specificity of the Arab despotisms. Chapter 15 discusses the importance of the army to regime coherence, using case studies from Chile and Egypt. The book ends with Chapter 16, which conducts a thoroughgoing comparison of the revolutionary and transitional experiences of Egypt and Tunisia.

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