PROFESSOR TAREK MASOUD’S central obsession is to figure out how countries that lack democracy can get it and keep it. And few groups of countries are more bereft of democracy than those he studies most closely—the Arabic-speaking, Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East.
Masoud, the Ford Foundation Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and faculty director of the Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative, knows the conventional explanation for the lack of democracy in the Middle East: The countries there are underdeveloped and divided in ways that have kept democracy from emerging and thriving. But when the Arab Spring happened, in 2011, Masoud—then an assistant professor—was hopeful that the Arab people would beat the odds and manage to replace their dictatorships with democracies. Around that time, he established the Initiative on Democracy in Hard Places at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, which was focused on figuring out how to build democracy in authoritarian countries that, like the Arab countries, were poor, often ethnically divided, and with little history of participatory government. But when the Arab Spring ended in civil war and renewed dictatorship, Masoud felt the air drain out of the endeavor. “The outcomes of the Arab Spring were exactly what political scientists would have expected them to be,” he said. “After that abject failure, it was hard to be optimistic about getting democracy in hard places.”
“Scholars bring logic, rigor, and evidence. Practitioners bring experience and an understanding of the real world. We learn a lot when they are in dialogue.”
In 2016, the arrival at HKS of Professor Scott Mainwaring, a leading scholar of democracy and someone Masoud describes as “a scholarly soulmate,” gave new life to the effort. Together, Masoud and Mainwaring forged an HKS course called “Getting and Keeping Democracy,” which Masoud describes as a semester-long dialogue—sometimes a debate—about why some democracies succeed while others wither. “Scott is a passionate advocate of the notion that democracy emerges and survives only when leaders are committed to democratic ideals,” says Masoud. “Political scientists have a hard time with that kind of argument. We tend to think that democracy is the result of processes that unfold over a long period of time. We think that countries become democratic only after they’ve ‘grown up’ and become industrialized and affluent. That was certainly my thinking after the Arab Spring.”
Masoud and Mainwaring’s course pulled in many HKS students who had been activists and practitioners around the world—or who wanted to be. Among them was Hainer Sibrian MPP 2020, a first-generation American born to Latin American immigrant parents, who gravitated toward Masoud. Sibrian, who studied for a year in Egypt before attending HKS, joined the State Department after graduating to begin a career as a U.S. diplomat. Speaking from Togo, where he was serving as a political and economic officer in the U.S. embassy, Sibrian said he frequently draws on lessons from his courses on democracy with Masoud. “[Tarek’s] classes almost always ended with a question,” Sibrian added. “It wasn’t like ‘Hey, we solved it today.’ But we definitely asked the questions that helped us get closer to understanding” what helped democracy survive and what undermined it. “And that was invaluable.”
To resolve their debate, Masoud and Mainwaring staged a major conference on democracy in 2019 and then coedited a book, Democracy in Hard Places, based on submissions to that conference. It offers nine case studies exploring why democracy has survived in countries as diverse and underdeveloped as India, Benin, and Timor-Leste and as unstable as Argentina and Moldova.
The book presents examples of democratic survival in “countries that nobody thought were good candidates for democracy because they were poor or ethnically fragmented or located in tough neighborhoods,” Masoud says. “Instead of throwing up our hands and concluding that some countries are just not good candidates for democratic governance, we thought what we really should be doing is thinking about how to meet that challenge. Is there something we can learn from the few democracies that emerged against great odds?”
A FOOT IN EACH WORLD
Masoud traces his passion for democracy, and particularly for democracy in the Arab countries, to a childhood spent between two worlds. He was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to Egyptian parents who had immigrated in the 1970s. But he grew up in Saudi Arabia, where his parents had gone to work, and spent summers in their native Egypt. He came back to the United States at the age of 16 to finish high school in New Hampshire and then earned his undergraduate degree at Brown University. He has always grappled with the contrast between the open, democratic United States of his birth and the closed, authoritarian Arab world of his upbringing, and it drove him to major in political science and to pursue a career writing about and studying politics.
After graduation, Masoud interned at Foreign Affairs magazine under Fareed Zakaria, then the managing editor, and was later a segment producer for the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer before seeking a doctorate from Yale University.
Once he landed at the Kennedy School, he quickly became involved in the Middle East Initiative, which was then part of the School’s Executive Education program. When Masoud became faculty director, in 2018, he began to bring in an array of visiting scholars and senior fellows who remain the backbone of the initiative today. “I like to force scholars and practitioners to talk with each other rather than just talking amongst themselves,” says Masoud. “Scholars bring logic, rigor, and evidence. Practitioners bring experience and an understanding of the real world. We learn a lot when they are in dialogue.”
Masoud’s other initiative, the Project on Democracy in Hard Places—which he describes as a labor of love—is smaller, but it follows a similar model of emphasizing the possibilities for learning that come from an ongoing dialogue between fellows who are hands-on players and visiting academicians. He also is chair of the Democracy, Politics, and Institutions area at the Kennedy School.
Archon Fung, the McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at HKS and director of the Ash Center, says, “Tarek’s leadership of the Democracy in Hard Places initiative is an important piece of our work at Ash and across the School to shed new insights into critical questions about how societies with fragile democracies—or little history with democracy at all—can develop and deepen the institutions and practices of political representation and democratic accountability.”
Mainwaring, who focuses on Latin American democracy, with its history of coups and attempts at democratic transition, left HKS in 2019 to return to the University of Notre Dame faculty, but he and Masoud continue to work closely together. “I think people who have experienced authoritarianism are often those best positioned to understand why democracy is so very, very important,” he says. “If you’ve had friends who were tortured, if your generation has been marked by the process of authoritarianism, there’s no one who can be a better advocate for democracy. So I think Tarek in this sense really understands authoritarianism, and he also understands democracies.” Mainwaring believes that Masoud’s effectiveness flows from both the depth of his regional expertise and his ability to draw larger inferences: “Tarek knows the Middle East extremely well, but he’s also very gifted as a theoretical thinker and a great scholar of democracy and authoritarianism.”
DEMOCRACY IN THEORY AND PRACTICE
One of the Hard Places visiting fellows this year is Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, who was the first democratically elected president of Tunisia after the Arab Spring. Tunisia has experienced a backslide, with the elected president suspending parliament and taking an authoritarian turn—similar to what happened in Egypt after its brief democratic stint.
The other Hard Places visiting fellow this year is Freddy Guevara, a prominent Venezuelan opposition leader who came to the Kennedy School in August 2022 after hiding out for three years in the Chilean embassy in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. Guevara has been on the front lines of opposition to President Nicolas Maduro, whom the United States and many other countries regard as a dictator. Venezuela has suffered from years of relentless economic decline and emigration—while democratic foundations in neighboring Colombia and Brazil have held up.
Guevara says that after the exhaustion and stress of surviving amid turmoil and violence, often in hiding, and then living in exile for a year, coming to Cambridge for the Kennedy School fellowship afforded him a time of “reflection and regeneration.” He is auditing courses and joining study groups as he focuses in part on how civil resistance and democratic transition theories might be adapted in light of the everyday experiences of people like him in pro-democracy campaigns.
“The opportunity that Tarek gave me is invaluable,” he says. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that the months I’ve spent here have already changed my mind about many things. I am trying to use the resources here to reflect on not only the Venezuelan situation but also the struggle for democracy worldwide, and on what small ways I can contribute.”
THE BIGGER DEMOCRACY PICTURE
In 2021, Masoud was named a coeditor of the Journal of Democracy, a publication of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, which is regarded as one of the premier forums for scholarship and analysis on democracy around the world. Masoud says that this new role has enabled him to step back and view the question of how to get and keep democracy through a much wider lens, by working with authors who are writing about these questions in a variety of contexts.
He points to an article in the October 2022 issue of the journal, titled “Why Ukrainians Are Rallying Around Democracy,” as emblematic of the insights to be gained from ranging widely across the world. “One of the things I learned from that article,” he says, “is the importance of democracy as an identity.” He explains: “Surveys show that Ukrainians are becoming more committed to democracy, and part of the reason for that seems to be that their great tormenter, Russia, is fundamentally nondemocratic. I think one of the silver linings of the great catastrophe of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be the galvanizing of a democratic identity in much of that region.”
“Do not give up on these places. Do not think that the story of democracy is over in any of them.”
Although Masoud’s work with the Journal of Democracy forces him to think beyond the borders of the Middle East, he still travels to that region four or five times a year. He serves on the governing board of the American University of Cairo, a 100-year-old institution that he views as a rare beacon of liberal education in a region sorely in need of it. “By training leaders who understand and value freedom and popular participation in governance, institutions like the American University in Cairo and the Kennedy School can help bring democracy to hard places,” he says.
About the Arab countries—which he describes as some of the “hardest” places for democracy—he remains cautiously optimistic. His sense is that while many regard the Arab Spring as a failure, “we’ve got to remember that the average citizen still does want a more participatory form of government. And to the extent that the governments in the region don’t deliver it, we’re going to continue to see people agitate for change. So do not give up on these places. Do not think that the story of democracy is over in any of them.”
Banner image: Vote counting in Tunisia: Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency | Portrait by Neal Hamburg | India: Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times | Argentina: Spencer Platt | Egypt: Anadolu Agency | India: Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket | Tunisia: Pamine Landoulsi/Anadolu Agency | Brazil: Mario De Fina/NurPhoto | Togo: courtesy of Hainer Sibrian | Venezuela: Jimmy Villalta/VWPics/AP Images | Benin: Pius Utomi Expei/AFP | Timor-Leste: Paula Bronstein | Togo: Xinhua/Xiao Jiuyang | Moldova: Diego Herrera/SOPA Images/LightRocket | Unless noted all Getty Images