U.S. aid factors in Arab world’s democratic stalemate
By Arooj Ashraf, La Prensa Correspondent
Democracy in the Middle East as an ideal receives much attention and contemplation from many arenas. Scholars, analysts, politicians, foreign policy enthusiasts examine nuances of cultural, historical, and religious influences that hinder the adoption of democratic values in the region and more so in the light of 2011 political awakening: Arab Spring.
Speaking at the City Club of Cleveland on Feb. 10, 2012, Amaney A. Jamal, associate professor of Political Science at Princeton University, dismissed two popular assumptions that Islamic beliefs combined with economic instability, uproot the seeds of democracy in the Middle East. Democracy flourishes in Turkey and Indonesia, both Islamic states, Jamal said and she cautions against placing sole responsibility on Arab culture as the obstacle.
The oil-rich Arab states also provide their citizens with luxurious life styles, without the burden of taxes and in return demand complacency towards the monarchy, she said. Jamal said in comparison to the evolution of democracy in U.S. and Europe, the critical element lacking is an autonomous middle class that propelled acceptance of democratic values.
“We cannot understand the lack of democracy in the Arab world without understanding international dynamics,” she said.
Jamal stresses the importance of looking at the Arab world in the context of international affairs, especially through the lens of U.S. financial aid and military intervention in the region. She said the Arab world has received more than $30 billion dollars in aid from the U.S. between 1991 and 2006, not including the amount given to Iraq; “That is more than the aid given to Africa,” she said. In correlation, the amount of military intervention in the Arab world has also exceeded more than any other nation in the world.
“The Arab world increasingly depends on U.S. economically and for its security,” she said, and also creates an imperial relationship between the two. Jamal said looking while each country has unique circumstances, democracy in the region must be addressed through a macro lens encompassing all states.
U.S. economic aid plays a unique role in hindering democratic evolution in the Arab World when seen through the context of Israel’s relationship with its neighbors and election of Islamist movements like Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood.
Jamal cited Jordan as a classic study case where the local economy has flourished through U.S. aid negotiated through a peace treaty with Israel. The middle class population is reluctant to usher in democracy in the post Arab Spring, fearful it may result in election of political movements unhappy with the status quo and anti-U.S. attitudes. She said the fear of sanctions will always serve as a stalemate toward democratization in the region.
She illustrated with a vivid example of changes in public opinion after the 2006 elections of Hamas in Gaza Strip. Palestinians polled on the eve of elections favored democracy by 70 percent, and after the elections the support fell to 45 percent.
Jamal carefully distinguishes between ‘Islamists’ correlating with anti-American. “There are also pro-American Islamists,” she said referring to the Kuwaiti Islamic Constitutional Movement, which broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood after Saddam Hussein’s attack on the nation in 1990.
She challenged the notion Islamists reflect attitudes of Arab masses, instead said their popularity is a result of rallying against existing corruption, extravagance of the elite in contrast to hardships of the average people and aggravated by certain U.S. policies. When asked if certain ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood are worthy of condemnation she responded with a simple “yes,” and added the same can be said of many political voices surfacing in U.S. politics as well.
Jamal said allowing free speech and free choice is pre-requisite of expecting democracy, and the result may not always conform to U.S. notions of democratic values. Using Kuwait’s inclination towards becoming a democracy that favors gender segregation she reminded the audience the current model of democracy is a result of the nation’s trials and errors; and was shaped by the struggles of the women’s rights and then civil rights movements. “If we try to manipulate and control we risk jeopardizing the movement,” she said.
Jamal has written four books. Her first book, Barriers to Democracy, which won the Best Book Award in Comparative Democratization at the American Political Science Association (2008), explores the role of civic associations in promoting democratic effects in the Arab World. Her second book, an edited volume with Nadine Naber (University of Michigan), looks at the patterns and influences of Arab American radicalization processes. She is revising a third book on patterns of citizenship in the Arab world, tentatively entitled Of Empires and Citizens: Authoritarian Durability in the Arab World (under contract with Princeton University Press).
Her latest book focuses on Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan, and features 250 open-ended interviews with the countries’ citizens.