Foreign Aid for Promoting Democracy in the Arab World

By Carapico, Sheila | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Foreign Aid for Promoting Democracy in the Arab World


Carapico, Sheila, The Middle East Journal


Western and international democratization projects in the Arab world, as elsewhere, have been controversial mainly because, unlike traditional foreign aid through government-to-government channels that strengthened executive institutions, projects in the fields of elections, rule of law, and civil society are funded and executed principally through extra-governmental channels. While foreign democracy brokers successfully cultivated relationships with some liberal think-tanks and other institutions during the 1990s, there was also a political backlash as Arab governments attempted to restore their monopolies over foreign funding and the production of political information.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, Western and international organizations funded hundreds of projects intended to help democratize Arab politics, applying a strategy conceived largely to influence post-communist transitions and political liberalization around the globe. Democracy promotion projects - broadly, those designed to enhance legislative, judicial, and civic responsibility - differed from most traditional services-delivery aid programs in their high grant component, the channeling of funds around the executive branch of government, and the output of ideas and information. In the Arab world, as elsewhere, democracy promotion became contentious as governments reacted to guard their monopolies over both the means of information and access to foreign funds. Thus many Arab activists in the new cosmopolitan network of liberal think-tanks found foreign funding to be a mixed blessing.

This article analyzes the flow of resources for democratization and good governance from an array of Western and multilateral institutions to the Arab world mostly, to Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, and the exceptional case of the semi-sovereign Palestinian entity in Gaza and parts of the West Bank - between 1992 and 2001.1 Through hundreds of separate projects, resources and discourses flowed from European and American governments, via a chain of semiautonomous Western democracy brokerage agencies, to an emerging network of Arab research-and-advocacy institutions. Whereas in Egypt and other Arab states information and the sites for its production had been centralized since independence, some new prodemocracy think-tanks, including judicial and parliamentary as well as independent agencies, acquired a modicum of autonomy from their own governments by relying on foreign funding. Governments objected that the flow of resources to "non-governmental" entities violates traditional concepts of sovereignty and exceeds traditional boundaries of political intervention. In other words, the inherent tension between states and civil society was triangulated by the introduction of expatriate interlocutors. New resources - money, messages, contacts - became the stakes in new struggles.

The "standard template" for democratization projects worldwide assumes a "natural sequence" whereby a loosening of authoritarian controls is followed by breakthrough elections and a transfer of power to liberal-democratic forces.2 The monitoring of "breakthrough" elections in a number of Arab countries in the early and mid-90s was followed by a host of projects designed to stimulate "demand" for democracy from civil society by explaining democratic rights and responsibilities to potential opinion-leaders. The premise was that politically active women, parliamentary candidates, judges, law students, journalists, teachers, and non-governmental organization activists would then lobby governments and rally public support for gradual reform and a liberal agenda.

Obviously, democratization was hardly the primary Western interest in the Middle East. Indeed, for the Clinton administration political reform was little more than an "afterthought" relegated to the level of "low policy" and complicated by a fear that too much democracy could bring anti-American forces to power. …

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