08/05/2013 04:05 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Insight into the Middle East's Freedom Deficit

Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All?

Amaney Jamal, Princeton University Press, United Kingdom, 2012

The health of Arab democracy has been sorely tested after the initial hope and optimism that came at the start of the Arab Spring. The grinding, near apocalyptic, conflict in Syria means that images of protestors filling the streets of Homs in 2011 have been replaced by those of a city in virtual complete ruin. In Egypt the squares that filled with those demanding the ousting of a dictator now compete with each other over the legitimacy of the supposedly post-revolutionary era. Progress in Tunisia and Libya remains pockmarked by violence. In 'liberated' Iraq, July of this year saw the worst violence in over five years. Talking to AFP one Iraqi bemoaned recently how under Saddam "I was not allowed to talk; now I can talk but nobody will listen".

Against such a backdrop Amaney Jamal, an associate professor at Princeton University who has written extensively on democracy, looks to better explain what she terms the 'persistence of authoritarianism' across the region. The book reflects a huge academic effort, a "massive data collection effort in three countries" of Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait. The effort is reflected by the thorough presentation of evidence -- the work includes detailed foot and endnotes, chapter appendices complete with snippets of the author's methodology, questionnaires and further hypotheses.

In essence Jamal argues that the client-patron relationship between the United States and the region is so strong that only when influential opposition movements become increasingly pro-patron, can they "reduce the fear that democracy will yield results that harm the patron-client relationship." Conversely, when influential opposition movements become increasingly anti-patron, they may "overthrow the regime and risk hostile relations with the patron" (p.18). Hence the authoritarian status quo persists. Through this evidence based look into the relationships between client and patron and between state and society, Jamal explores a simple idea, demonstrated well.

The agents in this political equation are the U.S., authoritarian governments, Islamists movements and the population at large. Jamal explains U.S. dominance of the Arab world in the form of development assistance (the region is the largest recipient of aid since1991) physical military interventions and relationships that have spawned economic and security dependence. Islamists are somewhat simply explained as emerging from their "positions on anti-colonialism, democratic and economic reforms, and their reconnection with core Islamic values" (p.63) with their emergence linked to the "longest time Islamists could use the institution of the mosque as a site for political mobilisation" (p.71).

The questionnaires and interviews carried out confirm Jamal's theory with Kuwait's more pro-U.S. Islamist opposition allowing increased democracy due to reduced fear of offending the patron, contrasting to Jordan where "citizens are cautious about the effects of democracy. Allowing more democracy could allow anti-American movements like the Islamic Action Front (IAF) to seize greater power in ways that would undermine the patron-client relationship" (p.33). The benefits of the U.S. relationship are explained including nuggets around how the Kingdom's exports to the U.S. increased by 453% between 2001-2005 and the economic backdrop that Jordan needs to grow "at least 6% per year if its going to be able to absorb the 45,000-65,000 new workers that enter the Jordanian workforce annually" (p.50)

The author expands the theory out into Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian experience balancing heavy data well with anecdotal quotes. However Jamal gets carried away somewhat with describing aspects of this tension between regimes, Islamists and the U.S. as "a paradigm that structures the daily interaction of citizens with their regime" (p.102). Nor does she fully explain how this paradigm explains the explosion of the Arab Spring in Egypt that led initially to success for Muslim Brotherhood. The fluid nature of the present situation makes it difficult to know whether a military backed authoritarian rule will be able to reassert itself in Egypt and whether this, rather than the period of President Morsi's reign, will prove more challenging to U.S.-Egypt relations. Perhaps using the same methodology to test the theory in Egypt will provide extra insight for the book's second edition.