Civil Society against Democracy?


Amaney A. Jamal.   Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.  216 pp.  $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-12727-9.

Barriers to DemocracyAmaney Jamal’s central insight in this carefully researched book may seem obvious once it is stated.  Her “overall hypothesis” is simply that “linkages to existing political institutions mediate civil engagement” (p. 19).  Thus civil society associations in authoritarian states may act more as replicators of the existing political order than as promoters of increased democratization.  However, this rather logical observation, backed up by Jamal’s empirical findings, has far-reaching implications for the efficacy of Western and global democracy initiatives in the Arab world and elsewhere, especially if those initiatives are less informed by critical thought.  These initiatives are frequently premised on the equation of democracy and nongovernmental organizations, and draw upon literature that views civil associations as “monolithic gateways for more active, responsible and effective political participation” (p. 79).  As Jamal points out, the failure to take into account that “the relationship of associations to clientelistic and authoritarian governments is dramatically different from that between associations and democracies” results in funds being wasted (p. 3).  More importantly, these initiatives themselves may replicate authoritarianism, promote cynicism, and skew understandings of, and commitments to, democratic practices.

Jamal proves her point largely through a case study of the West Bank under the Palestinian National Authority (she does not examine Gaza).  Although she does go “beyond Palestine” in one chapter to examine Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt using data from the World Values Survey, it is her own survey data and qualitative interviews undertaken in the West Bank in 1999 that underlie the crux of her argument.  Dividing associations in the West Bank into pro-PNA and anti-PNA organizations, Jamal also shows that anti-PNA organizations consistently demonstrate a greater commitment to democracy, while pro-PNA organizations exhibit higher levels of interpersonal trust but lower levels of commitment to democracy than their anti-PNA counterparts.  Jamal thus reveals a “negative relationship between levels of interpersonal trust and support for democratic institutions,” contradicting widely accepted views that link social trust to more effective democracy (p. 86).  As Jamal notes, not all trust is good for democratic outcomes: in the case of the West Bank, she sees trust as indicative of, and reinforcing, vertical ties of patronage with the Palestinian Authority, while anti-PNA associations are “more likely to be stronger supporters of democratic institutions” that they need for security and access to resources (p. 90).

Herein, Jamal’s focus on the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, lie both the problems and much of the interest of her study.  In particular, viewing the nonsovereign and transitional Palestinian National Authority as a “classic authoritarian regime” is problematic (p. 11).  Authoritarian it may be, but classic, in the sense of fitting clearly into an established state model, it surely is not.  Jamal does acknowledge that the PNA is “not a state” — and indeed controls little more than the main Palestinian towns — but this important point is not fully integrated into her analytical framework (p. 12).  For example, Jamal characterizes the PA’s regime as the sort of “state-centralized clientism” that is typical of a number of Arab regimes (p. 16).  The overinflated bureaucracy of the PNA — which Jamal cites as evidence of centralization and clientism — may be proof of the latter but is doubtful evidence of the former, given the instability and multiple incapacities of the Authority.  When we add another feature of the PNA as a “project of the West” — both undergirded and shaped by support from donors — a triangulated relationship between the Palestinian Authority, civil society organizations, and donors, rather than a classic state-centered patron-client model, emerges as a striking feature of the interim years (p. 71).

Indeed, relying on multiple donors and interacting with donor agendas, Palestinian Authority ministries often appear to act as NGOs.  In turn, Palestinian NGOs have historically acted in place of the absent state, a practice that has continued to some extent in the interim period, supplying a substantial portion of health services, to cite but one example.  One rather frustrated PA official told Jamal that before Oslo, NGOs “used to play the role of government, political parties and development.”  He added: Today, they still want to play all these roles” (p. 51).  There is a fluid (and familial) character to PA-NGO relations, which might be aptly characterized by Amartya Sen’s notion of “cooperative conflict,” that is important to take into consideration.1

Jamal is right to note that the West Bank has one of the “richest associational landscapes in the Arab world,” as 20 percent of the population participated in associational life in 1999 (p. 28).  It is the nature of this participation that Jamal finds problematic in the contemporary scene, pointing in particular to various modes of association that entail collusion with corruption and clientism.  It is interesting here to consider the transition from the mobilizing role of civil associations during the years of direct Israeli military occupation to the polarized — and I would add fragmented — status in the present.  Jamal notes the critical link between civil and political society during those years of direct Israeli military occupation, saying, “Palestinian civil society in the 1980s was based on the goals and aspirations of Palestinian political society” (p. 35).

Although Jamal sees this collusion primarily among associations that support the Authority, she also observes that “members of the opposition elite” from leftist factions opposed to the Oslo agreements “found it very lucrative to form their own local nongovernmental organizations” in order to benefit from the wealth of donor support for human rights and democracy initiatives” (p. 38).  This observation is worth pursuing, as it indicates that the post-Oslo political environment may not only polarize associations (between pro and anti-PA), but it may also produce new and one might argue corrupted aspects of political society that have universal effects.  In other words, even oppositional forces are affected by the prevailing climate of opportunism and clientism.

Since Jamal conducted her fieldwork in 1999, many changes have swept the Palestinian political and associational landscape.  For example, Jamal’s survey included just three Islamist associations and gave only slight attention to their differences and similarities with other anti-PA associations.  One can only hope that Jamal or other researchers will continue on the investigatory path she has opened up with this illuminating study.  Jamal’s findings on the troubled relationship of democratization and associational life in authoritarian settings and her proposal to consider a new theory of “democratic citizenship in state-centralized nations” is highly relevant, despite the caveats about the nature of the Palestinian regime presented here (p. 237).  Indeed, such a theory might well be enriched by the further examination of the crippled process of state formation in the Palestinian territories and its impact on the stateless citizens residing there.


1  Amartya Sen, “Gender and Cooperative Conflict,” in Persistent Inequalities: Women and World Development, ed. Irene Tinker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 123-149.

Penny Johnson is a Research Associate at the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University and Co-Editor of the Institute’s annual publication Review of Women’s Studies.  This review was first published by H-Levant (November 2008) under a Creative Commons 3.0 US License.