Institutional Roots of Authoritarian Rule in the Middle East: The Waqf as Obstacle to Democratization
The waqf (a trust whose assets are dedicated for religious purposes) is the closest thing under Islamic law to an autonomous private organization. Hence, in the Middle East the pre-modern waqf served as a key determinant of civil society, political participation, and trust in institutions, among other indicators and components of democratization. This paper argues that for a millennium the waqf delayed and limited democratization in the region through several mutually supportive mechanisms. By design its use of resources was more or less set by its founder, which limited its capacity to reallocate resources to meet political challenges. It was designed to provide a service on its own, which limited its ability to form lasting political coalitions. Its beneficiaries had no say in selecting the waqf’s officers, whom they could not evaluate. Circumventing waqf rules required the permission of a court, which created incentives for corruption. Finally, the process of appointing successive officials was not merit-based; it promoted and legitimized nepotism. The upshot is that, for all the resources it controlled, the waqf contributed minimally to building civil society. It served as part of an institutional complex that kept the state unmonitored and unrestrained by civil society, setting the stage for authoritarian rule.