MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World

By Heydemann, Steven | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World


Heydemann, Steven, The Middle East Journal


Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World, by Amaney A. Jamal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. xiii + 138 pages. Illust. Appends. to p. 151. Bibl. to p. 164. Index to p. 173. $35.

Reviewed by Steven Heydemann

Civil society has long occupied a privileged position, both in the practice of democracy promotion and in democratic theory. A strong civil society is seen as a necessary precondition for the development of democratic norms and practices among citizens and as a force able to hold state actors accountable. Despite active support from Western donors, however, Arab civil society has largely failed to emerge as an agent of democratic change in the Middle East. Instead, as Amaney Jamal points out in this insightful and provocative study of civil society in Palestine in the late 1990s, it has done the reverse. Jamal not only highlights the political and institutional constraints that undermine the capacity of Palestinian civil society to perform its erstwhile role as the carrier of Palestinian democracy, but shows how civil society sustains and reproduces the authoritarian norms and practices of the regime.

Tracing the trajectory of state-society relations in from Oslo (1993) through the late 1990s, Jamal finds that many of the attributes associated with strong civil societies - high levels of interpersonal trust, for example - are indeed present in Palestine. Yet, surprisingly, they were higher among those civic organizations that were most closely linked to the regime of then-president Yasir 'Arafat and weaker among the civic groups that were less tightly linked to the regime and exhibited higher levels of internal democracy.

As this suggests, civil society did indeed expand and deepen during the early post-Oslo period, yet it did so in ways that weakened and undermined the prospects of democracy. As the volume unfolds, Jamal shows how attitudes and beliefs that are often seen as mutually reinforcing - such as support for civic engagement, support for democracy, and higher levels of inter-personal trust - need to be understood instead as distinct qualities that may not be tightly correlated. Some of these attributes, notably higher levels of inter-personal trust, may in fact be strongest among groups whose members are least democratic, with troubling implications for the prospects for political reform from below.

To explain these counter-intuitive facts, Jamal explores the effects of highly clientalistic and authoritarian state institutions on civil society formation. It is the quality of state institutions, she argues, that shapes and constrains the quality of civic life. Under conditions of an authoritarian and highly personalized system of rule, civic organizations can best provide for their members by developing tight links to the state elites and state institutions, consolidating their positions within the clientalistic networks that are the main mechanism for the distribution of resources. …

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