Hiwar Speaker unpacks democracy failures in the Arab World

March 23, 2022
Amaney A. Jamal, dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and Edwards S. Sanford professor of politics at Princeton University, examined U.S. hegemony and its influence on the prospects of democratization in the Middle East at Northwestern Qatar’s most recent Hiwar Speaker event.
In a conversation moderated by Professor Sami Hermez, Jamal shared insights from her book Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All? to explain how U.S. interest-driven policy in the Middle East, compounded with the failure of post-Arab Spring democratic initiatives to deliver economic benefits, has contributed to the stalling of the democratization process in the region.
The failure of elected governments to deliver the citizens’ aspirations of economic dignity, she said, contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for democracy. “It is crucial to grasp that most of the people who took to the streets in 2011 were motivated not just by a desire for liberty but also by intense frustration with the material conditions of their lives,” said Jamal. “Arabs crave freedom and justice—but if democracy does not also deliver bread, Arabs will back political systems that do.”
Jamal also noted the U.S.’s willingness to compromise on its liberal ideals to serve its geostrategic interests as one factor in contributing to authoritarian durability in the region. Highlighting its support for the ousting of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt as an example, Jamal said, “one of the arguments used there was that Morsi was going to take Egypt to a path towards Iran, that he was going to harm international agreements, and therefore, the authoritarian government of Sisi should be supported.”
When asked about the future of democracy in the Middle East, Jamal said the U.S. military needs to move past its military engagement policy in the region and push international actors to support the region economically. “If we agree that the underlying problems in the region today are about economic grievances,” said Jamal, “the side effects of the Iraq intervention that we are still experiencing today did not help move the region economically forward.”
She went on to say that, in the absence of a unified political opposition and as democratization and economic development continue to sputter in the Middle East, Arab regimes will further consolidate their authoritarian rule. “I think today the Arab public is being even more disregarded than in earlier years,” said Jamal. “It seems that Arab leaders have moved beyond the conflicts and are moving ahead without the people— the status quo is the new normal, and it seems it will continue to be the new normal.”
A scholar of Arab politics for more than two decades, Jamal is the former director of the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice and the co-principal of the Arab Barometer, a nonpartisan research network that measures public opinion through polling in North Africa and the Middle East. She was named a Carnegie Scholar in 2006.
Jamal has authored several award-winning works on democratization and political development in the region, including her book Barriers to Democracy, which won the 2008 American Political Science Best Book Award in the Comparative Democratization category and her article Does Islam Play a Role in anti-Immigrant Sentiment: An Experimental Approach, which won the 2016 Louis Wirth Best Article Award.