Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World
by Amaney A. Jamal,
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007)

Reviewed by Donald G. Ellis, Ph.D., Professor of Communication, University of Hartford

The troubles in post-war Iraq are often characterized as resulting from the failure to develop the political and civil institutions that promote democracies. The U.S military and their coalition partners have done everything they have been asked to do, but the Iraqis still have not formulated attitudes at an associational level that promote social trust and democratic outcomes. In other words, they lack the interpersonal trust that accompanies a stable civil society.

The work of groups that foster civil society is crucial to contemporary theories of democracy. Civil society groups such as labor unions, social groups, and professional societies are important for opposing oppression and censorship while creating conditions for organizations that are independent of the state. Such groups help individuals practice the habits of reciprocity and communication which are essential for problem-solving and conflict resolution, and, ultimately democracy creation.

Those looking to advance the growth of democracy in Iraq and elsewhere would do well by reading Amaney Jamal’s Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World, an interesting and important book on the democracy building efforts in the West Bank and Arab world. In this short work, Jamal examines the associational realities and civil society potential of the West Bank during the Oslo Peace Process (1993-1999), offers insights into the conditions of “democratizing associationalism,” and extends the findings to Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan.

Civil society, Jamal argues, has a different relationship to authoritarian governments than to democratic ones. Authoritarian governments are characterized by clientelism and patronage where the interests of favored groups supportive of the ruling regime are sustained by non-democratic means. The government supports only interests that correspond to its rule. This disenfranchises large portions of the population and creates resentment as well as encourages others to develop attitudes that are inconsistent with those in democratic states. A civil society based on trust, however, is dependent on human relationships as a valuable asset (social capital) that brings benefits to people.

In the West, we typically assume that higher levels of social capital correspond to support for democratic norms. But Jamal illustrates how social capital can reinforce clientelistic tendencies and associations can endorse non-democratic values as well as privilege clientelistic behavior. The patron-client relationship, for example, between the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the Palestinian society reinforced the polarized and politicized status quo in the West Bank. The social capital of a few Palestinian elite families, or those close to Arafat, made it possible for them to dominate the political terrain of the West Bank.

Jamal’s book is divided into six chapters and appendices that contain survey questions and coding procedures. After an introductory first chapter, the book explains associational life in the West Bank and provides an excellent explanation of how associational life is the cornerstone of civil society and necessary to sustain competent and responsive democratic institutions. Jamal observes that associational life in the West Bank became very polarized between PNA-supporting and non-PNA supporting groups, and states that this is the fundamental reason for a number of problems and lack of political progress during the Arafat years.

Subsequent chapters expand on these issues and explain how ideology, economics, and ideas about social justice factored into this polarization. Jamal also uses interviews with Palestinian leaders to illustrate how weaknesses in the rule of law resulted in non-responsive political institutions. Later in the book, Jamal extends these issues to Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan and offers evidence that supports the conclusion that associations based on non-democratic institutions are detrimental to responsive government.

Jamal is to be commended for including rigorous data along with the usual complement of theory. Despite her important research, the causal relationship between democracy and civic culture remains an enigma. While Jamal’s book does not answer the question of the cause and effect relationship, it is an excellent contribution to the literature on democracy and associational life and it serves as an important assessment of the impact of social capital on democratic life.