University of Chicago

Can Sudan be a Fertile Breeding Ground for a Stable Democracy? By Omar Battisha

As political observers intently watch the situation between the Sudanese protesters and the Transitional Military Council continue to unfold, waiting to see if a democratic future is in store for the country, many are inclined to ask themselves the question that Walsh and Goldstein pose in the title of their New York Times piece: Who Will Lead: Soldiers or Civilians? Yet, according to the theories of Lipset and Lerner, perhaps the question we ought to be asking is whether Sudan has the economic and social structures necessary for the continued survival of any democratic structure that may be put forth.

Peaceful protesters have flooded the streets of yet another Arab country asking for the fall of its totalitarian regime and the establishment of democracy—it’s an image we’ve seen time and again, but with varying outcomes. While a popular protest movement in Tunisia successfully catalyzed the exile of its authoritarian leader and the establishment of a competitive multi-party system (bumping the country 3.5 points on Freedom House’s 7-point Freedom scale in the process), similar protests in Yemen and Syria started their countries down spirals of political instability and repression from which they have not been able to recover. Most worrying perhaps is the example of Egypt, where the Tahrir Square Protests successfully ousted the totalitarian leader in power and brought about the country’s first competitive election , only for the country to lapse into authoritarianism once again a few years later . The variability in outcome of Middle Eastern political revolutions leaves the avid political observer searching for answers. What factors allowed for the successful continuation of democracy in Tunisia, but prevented its reenactment in Egypt? And how can one use an understanding of these factors to determine if Sudan is fertile enough to allow for the seeds of democracy to be planted?

Seymour Lipset’s paper, Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy , sheds light on some social factors one may want to consider. In it, Lipset concludes that “the factors subsumed under economic development carry with it the political correlate of democracy”, essentially identifying a correlation between the four factors of economic development and democracy. Of these four factors, education seems to be the most important; not only does Lipset himself suggests that a high level of education is “close to being a necessary condition [for democracy] in the modern world”, but the Lerner study he cites—which computed cross-correlations among the four factors in 6 Middle Eastern countries—found literacy to be the most highly correlated with the rest.

A modern day application of Lipset and Lerner’s theories about the educational requisites for democracy to the Middle East seems to hold true. Lebanon—the “one member of the Arab League which has maintained democratic institutions since World War II” according to Lipset—and Tunisia—the success story the Arab Spring—both have higher literacy and education rates than some of the Arab Spring’s “failures”—particularly Egypt and Yemen (exact numbers in graph below). This evidence suggests that democratic systems brought about by popular revolt are more likely to succeed in countries where educational institutions are far-reaching and effective, and the populace is literate and educated.

Adult literacy rate, both sexes (%). Source: World Bank
Percentage of population age 15+ with no education. Source: World Bank

Yet, upon taking a quick glance at the literacy and education rates for some of the other Arab Spring failures—particularly Libya and Syria—an observant eye will notice that they match, and in some cases even exceed, the rates for Tunisia and Lebanon. How do such statistics work within the proposed schema?

This phenomenon is primarily explained by the fact that high educational values seem to be necessary but not sufficient for the survival of a Middle Eastern democracy. Whereas the lack of strong literacy and education rates in Yemen and Egypt prevented the revolutionary spark initiated by the Arab Spring from turning into a stable democratic flame (as it did in Tunisia), the existence of strong literacy and education rates in Libya and Syria could not by themselves satisfy the other military and political requirements that were necessary for democracy.

This phenomenon may also be accounted for by the varying nature of the political developments that arose in the each of the Arab Spring countries post-revolution. Because the Arab Spring in Syria and portions of Libya did not effectively bring about a national shift towards democratic institutions, as it did temporarily in Egypt with the establishment of a competitive election, there was no channel through which its citizenry’s education levels could impact its political institutions. In other words, while in Egypt, the literacy and education rates of the general populace did get to temporarily have a direct impact on the political system by shaping the government through elections, the lack of adoption of any channel of democratic participation in Syria meant that for the most part, the general populace and their education rates were a non-factor.

As we turn back to Sudan, armed with the understanding that nascent democracies survive better in societies where education and literacy are thriving, it becomes apparent that Sudan’s current democratic prospects aren’t too bright. With illiteracy affecting only almost half of Sudanese adults, and over 53% of those over the age of 15 having no education, it seems that more must be done on the social front to ensure that Sudanese democracy is not dead on arrival.

*Photo by Zenobia, “Protesters from all ages in the anti-El-Bashir protest on Tuesday in Khartoum “Amaged Salah”, Creative Commons Zero license.

1 Comment

  1. Gwenyth Szabo

    April 28, 2019 at 10:41 am

    I think it’s very interesting that you categorized your blog of Sudan under “Middle East” instead of “Africa.” From your analysis, I understand the connection you made with other Arab countries, including those in North Africa, and I think it’s justified to have your blog placed under this tab. However, I would also include it under Africa due to its geographical location.

    In addition to the comparisons you made to other Arab countries, I think it would be worth mentioning Sudan’s similarities to Algeria since both countries are currently facing uncertainty after recently ousting their incumbent leaders. Both countries also have defaulted to military rule as their interim government, and even though both populations are demanding the entire system be uprooted, the militaries are deflecting the pressure and working to appease protesters.

    You mention four factors of economic development for democracy, but you do not list the other three factors. I think it would be helpful to list them, so the reader has a complete picture of what other points contribute to building democracy. The Lipset article you cited mentions that there is only some evidence that literacy is an important factor for democracy, but it is coupled with industrialization, urbanization, and wealth. Were these other factors consistent among the countries you are comparing? If not, I think it is important to explain that there are other moving pieces that contribute to the potential for democracy aside from literacy and education.

    I thought your blog post was very interesting, and while most people would take a political approach to analyze the situation in Sudan, I like how you brought to light other points that will play a role in determining Sudan’s future structure. Ultimately, I think you raised important social considerations for promoting democracy in Sudan

Leave a Reply