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New Texts Out Now: Sheila Carapico, Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation

[Cover of Sheila Carapico, [Cover of Sheila Carapico, "Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation"]

Sheila Carapico, Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sheila Carapico (SC): After the Cold War, European and American professional democracy brokers flocked to formerly Warsaw Pact and Third World states with projects to monitor elections, promote civil society, train human rights activists, and so forth. They played a conspicuous, indispensable role in establishing the Palestinian Authority, and were increasingly visible in several Arab capitals. I began visiting the foundations that sent these delegations and gathering data on their activities, and published some preliminary findings in a Middle East Journal article. It came out in 2002, when the US was brandishing a new "freedom agenda" for the greater Middle East and gearing up for the occupation of Iraq. To a considerable extent, the research and the book were impelled by events.

All the while, I did not find much systematic analysis of the repercussions of political aid (either worldwide or for the Middle East). The dominant narrative was what I call Uncle Sam’s soliloquy, about a lone actor on the world stage introspectively (perhaps schizophrenically) trying to reconcile ideals with insecurities. Scholars and pundits debated American and sometimes European intentions. The industry self-publishes authoritative, often high-quality research tracking various countries’ progress as measured by ever-refined rubrics.  Ethnographers provided some valuable micro-level case studies of donor projects.  And there were some good country studies, particularly about civil society promotion in Palestine and in Egypt. But political scientists had not mapped the professional practices, institutional pathways, or actual outputs of political aid, or explored, for instance, the implications of working with law schools, criminal justice systems, national women’s machineries, pan-Arab bar associations, UN conferences, different human rights organizations, or other national or transnational agencies. So I was also writing to fill a gap in the literature, specifically about the praxis of political aid.

What is both exhilarating and frustrating about studying Middle Eastern politics is that it won’t sit still for examination. Just as I thought I was wrapping up this book (from Cairo, no less), the 2011 uprisings confirmed my hunch that none of the hypothesized donor objectives—genuine political liberalization, the stability of autocratic allies, a lucrative investment climate, effective penetration of activist networks—were achieved. Meanwhile Egypt’s military-bureaucratic apparatus wielded more legislation and lawsuits against foreign agencies and their domestic counterparts (based on the implausible premise that American agents had been fomenting revolution). We can be skeptical about democratic evangelism without succumbing to either teleological trajectories of hegemony or Vladimir Putin’s populist ravings.

So I wrote this book to explore the practices, paradoxes and contestations of political aid. It tells stories about the ironies widely recognized by practitioners, activists, and observers, and offers an analysis of seemingly antithetical trajectories simultaneously in play.        

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SC: Beyond the broad foreign policy debates, it turns out there is no such thing as “democracy promotion” writ large. Instead, professionals specialize and projects are narrowly targeted. I identified three key sectors—law, elections, and civil society—and one overarching theme—gender empowerment. These are my four main chapters, each of which confronts distinctive issues, literatures, and contradictions.

Legal scholarship offers robust concepts of pluralism, layering, and articulation, as well as ways of looking at complex interpolations between cosmopolitan and municipal (national) jurisdictions. Among other things, I uncovered a trove of papers by woeful law professors and human rights professionals sent to Iraq to help write a constitution, bring Saddam Hussein to justice, and graft some new courts onto the existing judiciary. My most explicitly comparative and longitudinal chapter, on electoral representation, confronts disjunctures between international power politics and monitoring protocols, on the one hand, and questions about the signification of elections, on the other. The literature on women’s empowerment, situated more in sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies than international relations, raises other kinds of questions, especially about who “represents” Arab (or, specifically, Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, etc.) women and by what mechanisms they “are represented.” Lastly and cumulatively, civil society promotion makes us consider the construct of the NGO (or CSO), authoritarian backlash, and controversies pitting sovereignty against globalization.

There are overarching themes, like notions of international institutional regimes and/or regimes-of-truth; questions about how stories are documented; and transcendent dilemmas facing activists who often feel caught between national and post-colonial forms of domination. I cannot begin to claim to “speak for them,” but I cite a lot of commentary from bilingual, bicultural intellectuals grappling with these quandaries.  

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

SC: In taking a comparative, regional, transnational approach, Political Aid is exponentially broader than my monograph (and other writings) on Yemen’s domestic politics. But it also expands on my earlier research in several directions. In both books, projects are the basic units of analysis: the focus is on activities. In each case, the projects investigated originated beneath or beyond national governments. In Civil Society in Yemen, I showed Yemenis mobilizing in different eras on different scales for independence, community betterment, human rights protections, national dialogue, and other purposes. Although perhaps inversely the main storyline in the recent book follows the activities of international democracy brokers, the study is also about activism and agency inside Arab public civic spheres. For instance, or especially, Political Aid cites the enterprise, projects, and writings of individual women involved in national (or regional or global) political life, from candidates or voters to writers and filmmakers to First Ladies and political dissidents. In different ways, both books interrogate how political scientists construe “the state,” or governmental-non-governmental dichotomies. Lastly, more by way of empirical findings than design, a lot of the action plays out in conferences, symposia, and meetings. Activists gather, with international experts, often at five-star facilities on Sea Island or the Dead Sea, to discuss and deliberate. I analyze these transcripts.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SC: First, I expect scholars, students, and observers of Middle East politics to find a broadly framed yet detailed analysis of the intersection of international relations, comparative politics, and political sociology of the Arab world. I hope researchers will consider whether and how to factor presumed "Western pressure” to democratize/ respect human rights/ empower women into studies of political continuity or change; and that students will gain insights into the workings of Arab judiciaries, elections, women’s institutions, and public civic spheres as well as the varying and complicated roles of foreign experts.  

Political Aid is also a book for non-Middle East specialists interested in political transitions, democracy promotion, and global aid regimes, and a contribution to the field of ‘transitology’ that often overlooks the region. The examination of the politics and paradoxes of political aid complicates reasoning about the path-dependency of guided liberalization, Arab exceptionalism, and/ or American hegemony.  I also argue for specific attention to interventions in the distinct spheres of justice, representation, gender, and civic activism.  

The third potential audience is comprised of policy analysts, practitioners and activists including employees, short-term consultants, counterparts, and grant beneficiaries – most of whom are very conscious of the complications and contradictions inherent in the work they do. Most of these readers will naturally be situated in North America or Europe, but I expect Political Aid to resonate most for bilingual professionals with experience in the field.

J: How might this book provide context for contemporary developments in Iraq or elsewhere?

The supposedly democratic federal political system Americans put in place in Iraq is imploding during the summer of 2014. Starting with the intended irony of the cover photo showing Marines putting an American flag on a statue of the fallen dictator Saddam Hussein, the book details the ways in which the Coalition Provisional Authority and other decision-makers failed to follow good professional advice or established transnational norms about how to write a constitution, bring tyrants to trial, design an electoral system, or facilitate transitional justice. The hastily written constitution put to a Saddam-style referendum was long on platitudes but left unspecified fundamentals of governance. In particular, the nature of provincial and/ or regional governance within the nominally federal structure was not defined, so there was no equivalence to provisions regarding states’ rights or representation in the national parliament. Rules for distribution of seats in the unicameral parliament were legislated later, under a complicated formula that left selection of a Prime Minister to months of post-election backroom wrangling. All this left a centralized state, in the hands of a leader not selected by voters, not balanced by effective autonomous provincial authority or judicial capacity. We are seeing the ramifications of poor political engineering in the current disaster.    

The stories of the other two places where political aid was heavily invested, Palestine and Egypt, are also sorry tales. By contrast with Iraq the multilaterally designed and painstakingly monitored Palestinian electoral system was so effective that for the only time in living memory, in 2006 an opposition party defeated a ruling Arab party in hotly contested competitive polling—only to have the West reject the outcome. As for Egypt, whether we supposed the “real” objective was actual political liberalization or regime stability, the outcomes are not as expected.

J: "Reform" is a word often applied to US "democracy promotion" efforts in the Arab World. How should "democracy promotion" be "reformed?" 

SC: This is a frequently asked and quite reasonable question, but to me it is the wrong question because it refocuses attention on the donors’-eye view, invites the omniscient imperative voice, and perhaps assumes the relevance of American democracy promotion to what happens on the ground. It’s neither my purpose nor my place to offer policy advice, really. In two major sectors – the field of law and justice; and the design and proper monitoring of competitive transparent elections – I cite considerable expertise and consensus on international standards, so in those fields I’d tell the American government to follow their advice and live up to those standards. More generally, policy makers could heed the expressed views of consultants, counterparts, and interlocutors in the Arab capitals where political aid is spent. I also quote dozens of bilingual professionals who reflect on their experiences with political aid amidst circumstances including police brutality, civil wars and foreign occupations, mock elections, token patronizing, and the backlash against civic activists accused of purveying “foreign” agendas. If policy makers are looking for good advice, I’d invite them to pay close attention to my footnotes.

Excerpts from Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation

Questions and Preliminary Answers (from the Introduction)

My task is to describe and analyze the dynamics of Western or multilateral organizations’ programs “promoting” Arab transitions from authoritarianism in the context of national, regional, and international politics in the Middle East during two tumultuous decades. The main research question is not whether political aid “worked,” but rather how it worked, in actual practice. What work gets done, how, by whom, to what effect? Who gets what, when, where, and how? What were the actual channels, mechanisms, and institutional practices—inter-governmental, for instance, or non-governmental? Where are the sites of interaction inside or beyond national boundaries? Who are the agents, intermediaries, and audiences? How were goals relating to justice, representation, women’s rights, or civil society framed, routinized, or contested? How did theories about political transitions mesh or clash with pre-existing legal jurisdictions, political institutions, and public civic spheres? When, why and how did client governments embrace or reject overtures? How did initiatives jibe with the aspirations, inspirations, and counter-hegemonic claims of civic activists? …Does political aid advance social justice, representative political institutions, and popular empowerment; or authoritarian retrenchment; or imperial domination—or what?


Legal Jurisdictions (from Chapter One)

On 30 December 2006, Saddam Hussein al-Takriti was hanged by a noose around his neck after being convicted of ordering a massacre of Iraqi citizens in 1982 in a place called Dujail. The videotape broadcast worldwide showed witnesses jeering as his body convulsed through the gallows. The trial had been an exercise in legal pluralism, the multicultural intermingling of legal orders. It dramatized some complexities of international interventions in the rule-of-law sector. The tyrant was captured by American forces and sentenced by an Iraqi High Tribunal organized and financed by the Occupying Authority. He was not charged with genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity under international law. Nor was he indicted for all his administrations’ atrocities. Rather, the verdict was rendered under the 1969 Iraqi Penal Code derived from an antecedent law promulgated by Great Britain under its League of Nations mandate and consistent with the Napoleonic code introduced by the Ottomans in their Mesopotamian provinces. Conducted in Arabic and Kurdish by Iraqi judges and prosecutors, the proceedings reflected Ottoman, customary, French, British, and Egyptian influences on Iraq’s courts system, and some American elements, but not more recent precedents, norms, and mechanisms in international criminal prosecution.

Few other initiatives were as sensationally fraught as the one culminating in this gruesome death chamber spectacle, and very rarely are foreign interventions as determinant as the American role in the Dujail proceedings. Yet multicultural legal systems and evolving transnational norms frequently call into question what system of laws applies in what circumstances. Inevitably probing the shifting confluence of municipal and transnational jurisdictions, legal development projects in post-colonial states and the Palestinian territories often confronted ambiguities between and among layers of judicial authority. Scholars posed these contradictions between law as a bulwark against police states and law as a tool of empire.


From Chapter Two: Electoral Representation

During the Cold War era of CIA-instigated coups, balloting in frontline client states seemed choreographed to rally American public opinion around military adventures in Vietnam and Central America. Framed in terms of a battle between democracy and communism, nearly any election, or any anti-communist result, could be portrayed as democratic; voter turnout could be spun as popular acclaim for American hegemony. These were dubbed “demonstration elections.” It has also been argued that all development brokers construct theatrical scenarios with dramatic plot sequences, casts of stars, and thousands of “extras”; if so, election projects, with victory and defeat, photogenic moments, and millions of extras, offer extra drama and spectacle. Teams of international observers systematically gathering data, dispensing technical expertise, and training local monitors can make the event look a lot like natives performing democracy for election tourists. In the Arabic-language media, as American democracy brokers in Egypt were reminded in 2011/12, some people portrayed international experts and monitors and their local counterparts as spies seeking intelligence with which to control political outcomes.

Good stagecraft is not the same as effective socio-political engineering, however. Grand plans by national governments can fall short of radically transformational objectives, after all….As one perceptive critic wrote, just because the “democratic offensive” is “meant to be an element in the politics of domination…doesn’t automatically make it happen.” Or it might look that way to Americans, for instance, but not to Iraqis. It is worth asking…what the “performance” of an election signifies to different participants, and how various actors make meaning of campaign rituals, get-out-the-vote billboards, celebrations of Voting Day, the act of marking a ballot, or declarations of who won.


Around the turn of the twenty-first century…one’s expectations might have been that foreign experts advised client governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, and other countries to display enough of the trappings of competition and transparency to justify continuing Western support and perhaps to pacify Arab electorates. If so, one might have predicted technically adept electoral design, administration, and verification in Palestine, and especially in Iraq, conducive to Western interests, and that Mubarak would welcome help in manufacturing credible electoral victories. Additionally, if political aid in the crucial field of elections served American hegemony, then Washington’s official pronouncements and experts’ findings would usually match. Finally, methodologically sophisticated reconnaissance missions ought to have yielded reliable political intelligence capable of predicting (if not controlling) political events. Critics of American interventionism naturally expected that in Iraq the highest levels of the US state apparatus, USAID, and parastatal or non-governmental groups funded by USAID or NED would manufacture the appearance of consent to a government serving American imperial interests.


Patronizing Women (from Chapter Three)

The word “patronizing” in the chapter title comes from a phrase bantered among bilingual development professionals about being “caught between the paternalism of Arab men and the patronizing of Western feminists.” I first heard it in Cairo, years ago, from the prominent Sana’a University women’s studies professor Raufa Hassan al-Sharqi, a successful fund-raiser and experienced consultant to donor-funded projects. It is a double entendre. International agencies extend funds, opportunities, and mentoring, but from a condescending position that assumes that Arab women need to be spoken “for.” This chapter investigates how these two contradictory kinds of patronizing—substitute ways of “representing” women—combine to hyper-politicize gender in ways that complicate the simplified empowerment paradigm. Speaking satirically in Arabic, Raufa Hassan also liked to render the English word “gender” into a quadrilateral Arabic root (g-n-d-r) that can be modified, grammatically, to novel meanings. “Yugandaru” connotes “they make things gendered,” or, perhaps, “they genderize,” and (as mustashraqun are seekers of the Orient, or Orientalists), mustagandarun are the seekers of gender, or perhaps Genderists. Bilingual professionals couldn’t help but make puns about patronizing and genderizing.

Like the social science of democracy promotion more generally, the women’s studies literature gives us two different ways of thinking about transnational regimes and the role of political aid projects. First, there is the normative content of liberal feminist internationalism—its altruism, its devotion to consciousness-raising, its emphasis on decency and principle, its ecumenical ethos of right and wrong that explicitly eschews cultural relativism in favor of purposeful culture change. This position empathizes with the difficulties so many women face, and calls on privileged Westerners to utilize channels for advocacy available to us. On the idealism-realism spectrum, projects for women lean heavily toward normative ideals and away from militarism.


Nonetheless, quite a few feminist thinkers have critically deconstructed empowerment sermons, bureaucracies, and tokenism. In the context of the lopsided ubiquity of the verb “to help” and of patron-client asymmetries embedded in the “aid” industry, they have argued that their terms of reference seem to predispose expat WID and GAD consultants to homogenize audiences as passive recipients of knowledge and resources. One scholar wrote that the Beijing/CEDAW apparatus functions as an international public sphere of two-way communication, while simultaneously, perhaps unwittingly, imposing a “discursive price of admission” that “effectively garbles the articulation of indigenous interests.” Furthermore, neo-liberal economic formulas for public sector lay-offs, cut-backs in social services, and charging fees at previously subsidized Women’s Centers—patently injurious to already-insecure households—equated “empowerment” with individual autonomy rather than with social movements.


Either or both ways—we want to know how messages of empowerment were conveyed, interpreted, institutionalized, and internalized. What are the textual logics? What chords did they strike, for whom? What can we discover about how some audiences construed key phrases and assumptions, and, in turn, how report writers signified those reactions? So, for instance: how did transitologists explain why women did or did not vote in the various electoral experiments analyzed in the previous chapter? What resources flowed to national institutions and/or non-governmental associations? Who heads the national machineries or prominent NGOs for women? What are the semantic and institutional practices?

Knowledge Production (from Chapter Four)

If political aid delivers information, persuasion, and symbiotic meanings, then organizations specialized in democratic transitions overseas resembled think tanks. Think tanks are “idea brokers,” professional research agencies with a policy mission that “monitor the latest political developments, pursue short-term research projects, organize seminars and conferences, publish occasional books or reports,” and apply for funds to keep their operations afloat. Democracy brokers and political institutes self-identify as think tanks based on the work they do. The turn-of-the-century web sites of the French Socialist Party’s Fondation Jean Jaures and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung of Germany’s Green Party associated themselves with “a wider family of social-democratic foundations, named ‘fondation’ here, ‘think tank’ there, or ‘institut’ elsewhere;” the Christian Democrats’ Konrad Adenauer Stiftung considered itself a cross between a think tank and a political aid agency. Accordingly, research has shown that projects in the Middle East bolstered certain categories of research and instruction, or counterparts specialized in the production of those categories of information and ideas.

Applied transitology borrowed the logic of civil society funding from the Keynesian economic stimulus paradigm that underlies much conventional development assistance: financial and institutional resources would kindle “demand” from extra-governmental lobbies, public action committees, watch-dog groups, businesswomen’s associations, investigative journalists, and advocates for the poor. This “demand” template called for grants, training, and conference interactions to generate empirical evidence and ideological rationales for liberal democracy. Accordingly, projects encouraged publications and training by professional research centers, media institutes, offices of gender analysis, human rights monitors, opinion survey companies, educational foundations, law academies, legal counseling centers, and such. More than in other world regions, research showed, think tanks were the proximate beneficiaries of civil society promotion in the Middle East. They were considered “useful organizational vehicles” for influencing public opinion “through the sponsorship of specific research agendas and policy dialogues.” According to investigation in Egypt and Palestine, the main impact of civil society programs was neither on the “macro” level of national reform nor the “micro” level of grassroots sentiments, but rather at the “meso” level of elite advocacy. Further research in Palestine suggested a paradox of “heteronomy,” whereby the success of NGOs in the donor circuit was inversely related to grassroots concerns, and disproportionate resources were funneled through highly professionalized “multiplicator” NGOs relaying messages from donors and filtering bottom-up communications.


These dynamics seemed dialectical. Domestic repression banished organizers to offshore portals and international councils, where they continued domestic struggles in the transnational/pan-Arab arena. Yet these venues had their own discursive price of admission and conditions of patronage. Oppressive internal restrictions legitimated outside interference, which prompted greater repression, which impelled the intensification of transnational schemes, which generated yet more intense backlash. In an age of globalization, dictatorship helped create the circumstances for its own negation in the form of extra-territorial activism. Simultaneously, donors’ civil society programming seemingly intensified counter-reactions in the form of upgraded predatory curbs on organizational freedoms. The outcome, then, was a synthetic transitory space for elite activism that at least partly eluded both national and global forms of authority, but was itself a zone of highly antagonistic politics.


By this time, political aid for non-governmental activities was deeply disputatious, recognizably paradoxical, and incredibly stressful. Yet there are three further turns of irony to consider before closing this chapter. First, Americans instituted in Iraq NGO restrictions on a par with the prevailing repressive standard for the region. Second, the US Department of Homeland Security cracked down on transnational Muslim charities as “terrorist fronts.” Finally, even though activists almost universally concluded that civil society promotion was intended to forestall possibilities for subaltern mobilization or other unruly forms of contentious politics, in 2011 the Egyptian government accused foreign organizations of inciting street protests.

[Excerpted from Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation, by Sheila Carapico, by permission of the author. © 2013 Cambridge University Press. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this book, click here.]

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