This post is excerpted from “The Seven Pillars of the Arab Future.” The full version is available at Democracy, and is reprinted here with permission.

The early days of the Arab uprisings were uncomplicated and inspiring, as they reaffirmed many Westerners’ long-held beliefs regarding universal values, human rights, and democratization. With the fall of long-standing dictators and the spread of unrest and protest, historical parallels were quickly drawn to the transformative events of 1989, which witnessed the fall of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and the acceleration of events that soon thereafter led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The ultimate success of the Arab uprisings will depend heavily on the development of seven core areas. This post discusses the second of those seven pillars: Education. Previously I’ve discussed the first four pillars, Economic Growth and Equality, EducationSecurity-Sector Reform, and Transitional Justice, and provided an an introduction to the series, which offers an overview of the Arab uprising and its recent aftermath, and provides a high-level sketch of the seven pillars.


Autocracies are characterized by centralization—power in the hands of one oligarchy, one group, one junta, sometimes one person. Democracies are characterized by decentralization—power dispersed across different branches and levels of government, intended to give citizens and their elected representatives a bigger say.

The countries of the Middle East and North Africa lag behind the rest of the world with respect to decentralization. There are myriad historical explanations for this state of affairs, and a recent study by the World Bank pointed to the still-potent legacy of the Ottoman Empire, with its centralized approach to tax administration and the experience of decolonization in the region. Throughout the region, deconcentration is the norm, where administrative management and responsibilities are simply redistributed among different levels of the central government and geographically dispersed rather than being shared with autonomous local governments.

Decentralization should be seen as an opportunity to explore and refine development strategies, since local governments often have a clearer understanding of issues that affect them, including transportation and social services. Localized administration also reduces administrative costs and streamlines procedural requirements.

How can top-heavy regimes decentralize? Arab governments have a broad array of potential approaches. Most important are credible municipal and provincial elections, which establish greater political accountability and help to break patterns of regional neglect. True accountability in turn will depend on service provision, and devolution of authority will be necessary to create the basis for such judgments. While this will vary dramatically among and within countries, it will entail some authority to design, finance, and manage the delivery of services to constituents. This will require the delegation of some degree of financial authority to impose taxes and/or borrow funds for development and infrastructure purposes.

Regional Norms

Of course, changes for the better in any single state, no matter how dramatic, will remain precarious without strong regional norms—states adopting generally similar standards of behavior and adhering to them. The strongest states, along with stable regional organizations, must encourage reforms and new standards.

Throughout this period of regional upheaval, it has been evident that revitalized notions of collective identity and transnational ties have spurred widespread activism. Shared media space, including satellite channels and social media, has encouraged these trends and helped to regionalize the politics of protest. It has also made the behavior of autocratic rulers a subject of intense interest for Arab citizens, marking a departure from past attitudes.

This pressure has had an impact on the regional state system, where the Arab League has undertaken nontraditional interventionist steps in response to the crises in Libya and Syria. The Arab League has condemned abuse and repression within targeted member states and advocated for international intervention to precipitate regime change.

The lead role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar on these issues is representative both of the dramatic shift in the regional balance of power and the prioritization of strategic interests. However, while the motivations for regional actions are suspect based on the identity of their sponsors, these interventions nevertheless mark an important departure that will have long-term effects on regional norm-building. For a regional political order that has long been zealous in its defense of sovereignty and indifferent to human rights, these steps will likely have far-reaching unintended consequences.

The emergence of regional norms will also depend heavily on the success of the ongoing transitions and the establishment of a critical mass of democratic countries within the Arab world. It will also depend on the willingness of newly democratic states to champion human rights and encourage democratic reform beyond their borders. The emergence of such a bloc would be a boon to reformers in undemocratic states and would likely accelerate regional democratization. Similarly, it might also provide a vehicle for increased regional friction between transitioning states and states that chose a different path with respect to dissent and regional change.