Creating democrats? Testing the Arab Spring


This study examines the relationship between U.S. democracy promotion (DP) and democratization in the Arab world. DP has been an important U.S. policy in the Arab Middle East for two decades, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on it. During most of that time, only minor changes have taken place in most of the Arab countries. Executive branches are still powerful and not subject to real accountability, security-service intimidation is still rampant, and many popular social movements and groups are banned. Before 2011, no Arab countries could be argued to be democratic, apart from Lebanon and possibly the West Bank/Gaza Strip, despite 20 years of DP by the United States.

The Arab Spring, however, has presented a key opportunity to test the effectiveness of U.S. DP. The concept envisions a country, in this case the United States, helping to foster the civil society of another country, while at the same time employing other methods, such as calling out regimes for human-rights abuses or urging them to make reforms. The hope is that this will help civil society rise up and push back against a weakening authoritarian state. At first glance, this seems to be exactly what has been occurring in the Arab world over the past two years. If this phenomenon could be linked to U.S. DP, it would provide strong evidence in favor of existing policies. Similarly, if the uprisings cannot be traced to U.S. DP, it would call into question the usefulness of this endeavor.

This study uses the cases of Jordan, Egypt and Syria to probe three questions: (1) whether U.S. DP policies can be traced to either political liberalization or manifestations of political action (strikes, protests, demonstrations, petitions and the like); (2) if not, why not; and (3) what were U.S. intentions in promoting democracy in the Arab world? By analyzing DP project proposals, I attempt to link their activities to the protests, strikes and other social movements before and during the Arab Spring. These are clear and measurable signs of “democratization”: where the citizens believe they have a role to play in politics. This study argues both that U.S. DP has not worked in the Arab world, and that U.S. aid cannot be linked to any of these significant political actions. It also argues that the Arab world does not need DP; years of democratic protest movements have sprung up in the Arab world completely independent of U.S. help. Following the developments in the Arab Middle East since January 2011, huge numbers of people can be said to be “democrats” without U.S. DP having made them so.


Jordan has been extolled as one of the most prominent examples in the Arab world of U.S. success at DP. Kings Hussein and Abdullah II have undertaken liberalizing reforms, though whether they amount to any real democratization is highly debatable. In his oft-quoted 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), former President George Bush called Jordan's 2003 parliamentary elections “historic.”1 While discussing reforms in the Arab states, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated, “Jordan is making really great strides in its political evolution.”2 Likewise, while Barack Obama was campaigning for the 2008 elections, he was so impressed with King Abdullah II that he told him, “Your Majesty, we need to clone you.”3 The Jordan branch of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) discusses its goals in terms of helping to achieve the political-reform goals of the monarchy.4

Much focus has been placed on Hussein and Abdullah II for their advocacy of political reforms, despite their significant personal interest in maintaining the political status quo. The actual liberalization process has been far more complicated than the common narratives of benevolent rulers taking charge of the democratization process, or strongmen retreating in the face of the growing power of civil society. Jordan represents a key example of “liberalized autocracy,” a type of government in which autocrats undertake political reforms without sacrificing the power of the executive branch. Jordan's liberalization process has been the longest opening in the Arab world (apart from Lebanon); it started in 1989 but has yet to take meaningful steps toward democracy. In fact, it has reversed many liberalizing steps. In 1993, Freedom House scored Jordan a three on political liberties and a three on civil liberties, the highest “freedom” scores of any Arab country.5 In 2011, it gave them a six on political and a five on civil liberties, clearly authoritarian status.

The U.S. State Department judged both the 1989 and 1993 elections to be free and fair, despite obvious gerrymandering by the regime. To this point, very little U.S. aid was coming to Jordan at all, much less in the form of DP aid. USAID did not start granting aid specifically for democracy until 2002. From 2002 to 2007, only $54,010,000 was set aside by USAID for DP projects, compared with $979,025,000 for cash transfers alone.6 The National Endowment for Democracy didn't have a significant presence in Jordan until 2005, and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) wasn't founded until 2002. Before democratization aid started coming in, most of the U.S. money was spent on maintenance of the status quo in Jordan. The aid given at this time was in cash transfers as a reward for the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty in 1994. This money was extremely important, not only for keeping the regime afloat, but for keeping its patron-client systems of cooptation intact. The linkages of the regime to the military, business elites and tribal leaders rest largely on benefits that these groups receive in exchange for their support; and the ability of the regime to continuously supply these benefits to its patrons rests partially on the money received for the peace treaty. The cash transfers, coupled with a U.S. blind eye to the abuses of the Jordanian government, also were no disincentive for the harsh crackdowns against anti-peace and normalization elements. The regime relied on this money, and the money was tied to peace and normalization with Israel; this necessitated keeping the opposition out of any position of power in the government.

The protesters and opposition that came into the streets in 1989, 1993, 1997 and 2001 came fully of their own accord and in the face of probable brutality from the regime. This indicates two important trends. The first is that politicization was occurring; a growing number of people not only were discontented with government policies, but saw it as their prerogative to demand changes. People were viewing themselves as political and believing that their voices should be heard. Second, the United States did not start this through its DP activities. Since democratization aid hadn't started coming into Jordan, and democracy wasn't yet high on the agenda, the United States was not really involved in this stage of liberalization. By the time Washington did start supplying DP aid, the regime had already begun to reverse many of the liberalizing measures it had initiated in the early 1990s.

After this period, when the United States began to take an active role in DP in Jordan, several key issues hindered its effectiveness immediately. The second Intifada and the 2003 invasion of Iraq were raging on either side of the country. The role of Jordan in the War on Terror and the climate in which civil society had to work also had significant effects on the ability of the United States to work in Jordan. Because Jordan has been an important mediator in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and has played a major role in the U.S. War on Terror, it actively sought to promote itself as an indispensable ally of the Americans in the Middle East. Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate (GID) has become increasingly close to the CIA since the September 11, 2001, attacks, and they have collaborated on hunting down suspected terrorists. The United States subsidized the GID budget and has been allowed to build bases on Jordanian soil, and the GID has even played a role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Condoleezza Rice stated, “The United States has had no closer ally than Jordan in the war on terror.”7 These major U.S. policy goals have proven more important than promoting democracy. In 2008, the United States and Jordan signed a five-year memorandum of understanding stating that the United States would give Jordan $360 million in economic assistance and $300 million in military assistance annually on top of other aid.8 Counterterrorism efforts have inevitably caused increases in human-rights abuses in Jordan, with U.S. consent that was sometimes explicit. A prominent example is the king's dissolution of the Senate, using the pretext of the Amman hotel bombings. Another is the extraordinary rendition of suspects to Jordan for the purpose of interrogation. As a former CIA Middle East division chief said of the GID, “They're going to get more information [from a terrorism suspect] because they're going to know his language, his culture, his associates — and more about the network he belongs to.”9 Active U.S. promotion of the use of torture does not bode well for democracy in Jordan.

The U.S. DP projects that were undertaken after 2002 in Jordan were mainly civil-society-based and implemented with the complete collaboration of the Jordanian government. According to a USAID-Jordan statement from 2005,

Jordan continues to play a vital role in the Middle East as both a key U.S. ally in the war on terror and a model of reform for the rest of the Arab world. This role is enhanced by the strong will and dynamism of King Abdullah II, who has ensured that major reform initiatives in all sectors are creating a better future for all Jordanians.10

The idea that the regime in Jordan will actively promote its own demise is not at all realistic and ignores the de-liberalizing trajectory of the country under Abdullah II. Yet, it forms the fundamental basis of U.S. DP efforts in Jordan.

The success of these projects has been subject to the conditions in which civil society organizations (CSOs) work. The media are restricted not only by harsh press laws; the Jordanian government owns substantial shares of the leading newspapers: 60 percent of al-Rai, 35 percent of al-Dustur, and 75 percent of Sawt al-Shab.11 The security services have to approve all journalists working in the country. Unions and professional organizations have continued to hold internal elections and function with some autonomy, but they are typically hostile to foreign funding.12 Associations can form, but they must be apolitical, a law typically enforced only against anti-regime groups. The government requires all social-service organizations to be a part of the General Union of Voluntary Societies, an umbrella group run by the government for monitoring purposes. Voluntary Associations Law 33 states that the government has the right to review the records of any nongovernmental organization (NGO). Censorship, reorganization of NGOs, writing of their constitutions, as well as violence and physical intimidation, are common coercive methods used against opposition groups. In 2002, Law 32 (1964) was replaced; the new law banned organizations from getting foreign funds without government approval, gave the power to dissolve groups to the Ministry of Social Affairs, and eliminated loopholes that had allowed certain groups to subvert the rules.13 All of these restrictions limit the ability of opposition groups to function or get aid, make joining them potentially dangerous, and limit the possibility of any U.S. money trickling down to groups that are not pro-regime.

Moreover, Jordanians typically have been hostile towards U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world. A WikiLeaks document outlined some Jordanian responses to then-President George W. Bush's 2003 speech to the NED. A commentator for al-Dustur stated:

I cannot imagine why Bush referred to Jordan's recent parliamentary elections as historic. If they produced results that the U.S. sees as historic, how come we do not see that? No one should be comforted by Bush's praise, partly because we still need political reforms. For instance, the U.S. should respect us more if we were to allow people to demonstrate denouncing U.S. policy in the Middle East than if we were to repress the people and prevent their freedom of expression.14

Fahed al-Fanek asked in al-Dustur:

Does the U.S. mean what it says, or is this a means of applying pressure on Arab rulers to collaborate further with the occupation against the wishes of their peoples? The U.S. knows well that these countries would not have been able to support it in its occupation of Iraq had they been democratic.15

A study by Anna Khakee finds that many Jordanians cannot see the impact of U.S. projects, and that the on-off nature of funding and grants undermines their success. They also criticize the level of corruption, both in CSOs that get western funding and in the flow of funding through government channels.16 The clear distaste for Western interference also limits the ability of U.S. aid to effectively promote democracy, especially among opposition groups (which tend to oppose U.S. policies).

Of 89 projects from MEPI, USAID and the NED, eight focused on government capacity building, 81 focused on civil society, and 12 focused on economic liberalization.17 The latter did not include the other categories of “economic growth” that MEPI and USAID also have. Of civil-society programs, 18 were focused on women and 31 on CSO capacity building, and 37 were short-term workshop-based programs. Of the total number of projects, 31 were contracted or carried out by U.S. or western companies or organizations.

Those that worked on government capacity building emphasized streamlining processes and promoting electronic governance. For instance, one USAID program ($8,669,707) on legislative strengthening stated,

Targeted technical assistance will be given in order to: improve the work of Parliamentary committees; develop the ability of the Parliament to monitor public expenditures; and create a professional legislative research department. The overall goals and objectives of the program are to increase public participation in the legislative process and to improve Jordanian perceptions of the Parliament.18

Though this program description claims to be an attempt to “increase public participation,” none of the areas of technical assistance necessarily help with this. The effectiveness of parliamentary research and committees is important for governance, but these issues do not matter much when parliament's power is as circumscribed as it is in Jordan. This program also sought to “improve Jordanian perceptions of the Parliament,” when Jordanian disillusionment with parliament has rested mainly on its unfair voting procedures, which are not mentioned. Jordanian views of their parliament as a powerless and undemocratic structure is correct, and their questioning of it is exactly what democratic citizens should do. Asking them to overlook the Parliament's structural problems is asking them to acquiesce to an undemocratic system.

Grants were given to a large number of organizations that held limited workshop-based programs. The subject matter of each of these projects varied, but they were largely a series of short, sporadic, day-long training sessions. For instance, the Center for Private Enterprise was given $157,865 by NED in 2007 to provide economic guidance to al-Quds Center for Political Studies, and hold two workshops for parties on developing an economic platform and four workshops on the Jordanian economic climate. Al-Urdun al-Jadid Research Center was given $35,800 in 2007 to hold nine workshops for activists and government officials on “empowering civil society.”19 Adaleh Center for Human Rights Studies was given $25,757 in 2006 to hold two three-day workshops on “communication and organizing skills.”20 Though workshops may be effective for disseminating information, they are poor examples of Dewey's or Tocqueville's associations. Sustained dialogue can function to create an understanding of the self as a citizen, as well as create community — both aimed at, but missed, by these initiatives.

Further, these programs have little to do with issues important to Jordanians, apart from a few that held workshops on corruption. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not mentioned, and several programs push liberal economics, though they are extremely unpopular. Programs that do not resonate with regular people are not “giving voice” to the public and are essentially disconnecting politics from people's lives. U.S. DP “gives voice” to those it funds — but if these are not issues that the public cares about, it cannot be said that it “gives voice” to the people. Moreover, if politics is only discussed in terms of lofty theoretical ideals, rather than being grounded by these specific public concerns, it can turn into something that regular people feel does not concern them. The point of democracy is that these very people do have a role to play in politics, and it is detrimental for democracy if they feel that they cannot play it.


On January 21, 2011, 5,000 people rallied to protest the economic policies of the government and call for the resignation of Prime Minister Rifai. The secretary of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), Hamza Mansour, called for the election of a new prime minister, stating that “the King should be a guide, not the executor of the country's daily affairs.”21 On January 28, 2011, the third consecutive after-prayers Friday protest in Amman drew in 3,500 people, with another 2,500 in six other cities around Jordan.22 The protests were organized by members of the IAF, leftist organizations, union leaders and students. Some tribal leaders were also involved, one of the first times this group has actively advocated change. Protesters were initially calling for economic reforms and political changes. One protest organizer stated, “We want a complete overhaul of the political system, including the constitution, the parliament dissolved and new free and fair elections held.”23 The king responded by replacing Prime Minister Rifai in February with former Prime Minister al-Bakhit. Protests continued, because al-Bakhit was not viewed as a reformer but a member of the “old guard,” and many protesters were advocating elections for prime minister.

On February 18, 2011, around 200 regime supporters beat peaceful protesters with batons and pipes, severely injuring at least eight, while police watched.24 In response, 6,000–10,000 protesters marched the following Friday, February 25, 2011. Protests and sit-ins continued. On March 24–25, 2011, a group of students organized themselves and staged a protest in Amman along with leftists and IAF members, during which government supporters again harassed and threw rocks at the peaceful demonstrators. Over 10 people were reported injured. Since then, demonstrations have continued with varying strength and levels of violence from regime and pro-regime forces, gaining leadership from the IAF; the March 24, 2011, Youth Movement; Ahmad Obeidet; and union leaders.

In October, Ahmad Obeidet created the National Front for Reform, a coalition of union members, leftists and Islamists. The coalition includes the IAF, the Jordanian Communist Party, the Jordanian Democratic Popular Unity Party (Wihda), the country's two Baathist groups, the Jordanian People's Democratic Party (Hashed), the Nation Party, the Social Left Movement and the Jordanian Women's Union.25 Some professional-association leaders and independents are also involved. The movement is continuing to call for constitutional changes, an end to corruption, and the reversal of normalization with Israel.

In response to the Arab Spring events in Jordan, the U.S. increased cash transfers from $818 million in 2010 to around $918 million, and promised another $400 million to be given through the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation.26 Barack Obama also was reported to have called King Abdullah II to reassure him of U.S. support, and did not speak out on the issue of violence used against protesters. The United States did not give significant aid to any of the major groups and people involved in this uprising. The 2002 Associations law severely limited the access of the opposition to U.S. aid, and much of the opposition did not want U.S. aid. These results indicate that U.S. DP, far from “creating democrats” or “fostering grassroots change,” caused little to no positive change. The grassroots advocates of change came largely from the rank and file of organizations not aided by the United States. Al-Jazeera satellite network's coverage of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt did more to spark the street demonstrations than U.S. DP did.

The question presents itself, why did the United States seek to promote democracy in Jordan, when poll after poll has showed clear distaste for U.S. policies? According to a 2008 Arab Barometer poll, 74 percent of Jordanians think democracy is the best form of government, 63 percent disagree that U.S. DP policies are good, and 61 percent think that armed attacks against the United States are justified.27 Jordanians have consistently been against economic liberalization, supportive of Hezbollah and Hamas, against normalization with Israel and against the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. With any meaningful citizen participation, at least some of these ideas would make their way into Jordanian policy.


Egypt, like Jordan, has been one of the most important U.S. strategic allies in the Middle East. It has made peace with Israel, policed its border with Gaza and helped maintain Israel's blockade. Egypt, like Jordan, relies heavily on U.S. aid, which hovers at an average of $2 billion annually. Though the majority of this money is in the form of cash transfers and military aid, the United States spends more on DP in Egypt than in any other Arab state. However, Egypt has consistently received Freedom House scores of six on political liberties and five on civil liberties over the past decade, showing little real improvement on these basic necessities of democracy.28

Furthermore, Egypt is a huge market for U.S. goods, had efficiently cracked down on Islamists until 2011, has supported U.S. interventions in the region, and has been indispensable in the U.S. War on Terror. The emergency laws, accompanied by Mubarak's antipathy toward Islamists, have made Egypt an ideal country for extraordinary rendition. According to former CIA case officer Robert Baer,

If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear — never to see them again — you send them to Egypt.29

Several WikiLeaks documents have outlined the extradition and assistance agreements and detailed the importance of Egypt's assistance to U.S. counterterrorism activities. Egypt has been described as “a steadfast ally” in counter-terrorism efforts30 and has helped deal with U.S. prisoners, prosecute tunnelers in Gaza, and hunt down Egyptian terror suspects. This relationship may be important for U.S. interests, but it is not good for guaranteeing civil rights for Egyptians. Though there are significant human-rights abuses due directly to the state of emergency, the United States has relied on it directly for its counterterrorism activities. Though the United States has worked on “repealing (Egypt's) emergency law and replacing it with an anti-terror law,” U.S. officials have also stated that “the latter is likely to prove at least as authoritarian as the former.”31 It seems that the name is the only real change the United States is seeking, not the human-rights black hole that allows Washington to extradite terrorism suspects. Far from a U.S. understanding of democracy as helping to fight terrorism, democracy in this case may mean a less fruitful War on Terror.

Between 1975 and 2009, USAID funds to Egypt totaled $28.6 billion, approximately 4 percent of which was for DP.32 Of the approximately $2 billion given to Egypt annually since its 1979 peace with Israel, DP funds have hovered around $21 million annually since 1999.33 Over $35 billion has also been given in military aid since the 1979 peace accord with Israel, an average of $1.3 billion or so per year.34 One WikiLeaks cable describes why military aid is so important to U.S. interests: “The tangible benefits to our mil-mil (sic) relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the U.S. military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace.”35 Other significant sectors that outweigh DP are commodity import programs, in which the U.S. government gives Egypt money to import American goods; cash transfers; “economic growth”; supplemental aid for the Sinai; and infrastructure projects.36 DP ranks as only slightly more important than agriculture and the environment in terms of U.S. aid to Egypt.

U.S. DP in Egypt after 2001 broadened its approach to include a whole series of different initiatives. In 2002–03, the major U.S. aid agencies were reorganized, creating significant tensions between them and other agencies and the State Department. This led to confusion and problems with different organizations' overlapping projects, as well as some animosity among the groups. Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, was director of MEPI. At one point, she criticized USAID projects as “ineffective,” claiming that projects focusing on basic service provisions were merely “organizing people to collect trash.”37 On top of these problems, aid programs have not been very effective, even by their own standards. According to its most recent audit, USAID had only achieved 52 percent of its planned results and 65 percent of its planned activities during 2008.38 In this same document, USAID also stated,

The impact of USAID/Egypt's democracy and governance activities has been limited based on the programs reviewed,…and the impact of USAID/Egypt's democracy and governance programs was unnoticeable in indexes describing the country's democratic environment.39

Of 218 USAID, MEPI and NED projects analyzed, 23 focused on government capacity building, 18 on economic liberalization (not including the separate economic-liberalization sections from MEPI and USAID) and 176 on civil society.40

Of those that addressed governmental capacity building, a majority dealt with either the Egyptian government's decentralization plan or the strengthening of the judicial sector. The Egyptian government set up a five-year decentralization plan in 2006 to devolve some power to municipal councils. The United States has sought to help increase the capacities of these councils to efficiently use funds and deal with increased responsibility ($22 million contract). The strengthening of the judicial sector has centered on normal initiatives such as court automation, as well as USAID's Family Justice Project ($17 million contract). This project sought to strengthen the ability of the justice system to mediate family disputes and increase access to family legal services.41

According to USAID's evaluations of these initiatives, the decentralization plan only completed seven of the 22 planned activities, and the Family Justice Project only completed 30 of 43 planned activities.42 Though these activities may generally be helpful, neither played a role in mobilizing people or challenging the state. For example, though the Judges Club clearly confronted the state in 2006, this had nothing to do with family law or the large number of court cases, but the judges' own respect for human rights and reform. Municipal councils, though probably able to use resources slightly more effectively, hardly played a role in linking the people to the state. Municipal councils, which Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) dominated with around 98 percent of the seats until 2011, have not helped to increase citizen participation.43 The relative apathy of Egyptians towards elections and dealing with “elected” officials has been a major reason they have sought to gain voices outside of the system through contentious politics. Moreover, the low rate of activity completion and high costs, let alone the low overall success rate of the projects, send up red flags regarding their usefulness generally.

Of those that focused on economic liberalization, most were conducted by the U.S.-based Center for Private Enterprise (CIPE).44 CIPE received a total of $10,035,478 from the NED between 2005 and 2010, mainly for projects (1) dealing with consensus building among private business leaders and (2) directly pressuring the Egyptian government to adopt ideas such as corporate personhood and removing legal impediments to free-market competition.45 The CIPE projects demonstrate some of the problems Egyptians bring up for rejecting U.S. aid. The most significant critique is that the United States is seeking to instill its values through civil society by focusing its aid on policies that it wants a government to implement. Rather than helping society to voice its own grievances, the United States uses it to voice U.S. grievances. By using its funds to help a U.S. organization directly lobby the Egyptian (or Jordanian) government, the United States bypasses Egyptian society almost completely to pursue its own agenda.

The environment that civil society has operated in is relatively similar to that of Jordan: severely restricted and subject to coercive state control. In 2002, Law 84 was passed, giving the Ministry of Social Affairs (later renamed the Ministry of Social Solidarity) the power to approve the bylaws, boards of directors, budgets, activities and funds of NGOs, as well as to close them down and transfer their funds to other groups.46 It required all organizations to obtain prior approval for foreign funding from the ministry. The government also had infinite powers of repression and harassment at its disposal, including the ability to ban groups, to help legitimate its use of these tactics. The U.S. Foreign Operations Fiscal Year 2005 Appropriations bill, which allows U.S. groups to work with civil-society organizations that do not have state permission to receive foreign funds, though it circumvents some of these issues, still cannot overcome the repression of this environment. The Egyptian state has arrested people and shut down groups for receiving foreign aid — though the United States was more likely to criticize Mubarak for repressing the groups it works with.

However, 176 of the total projects analyzed focused on civil society. Of these projects, 25 dealt specifically with women, 33 with youth, 15 with election monitoring, 56 with CSO capacity building and 23 with research; 87 involved short-term, workshop-based training (with some overlap). The projects were all relatively similar to those that the United States pursued in Jordan. The one-way workshops and training still dominated, continuing the trend of information dissemination. Between research-based and capacity-building programs, 71 did not require any citizen involvement at all. Few had anything to do with the concerns of regular Egyptians, apart from corruption. Even those dealing with corruption consisted of workshops that taught people about confronting it, more or less explaining the problem. The issues that originally mobilized people and kept them coming into the streets — U.S. wars in the region, the second Palestinian Intifada, hardship caused by increasing privatization, and the perceived grooming of Mubarak's son for the presidency — were not dealt with or even really acknowledged. In some cases, such as U.S. aid for labor organizing, it actually may have impeded democratization in that sector. The year 2007 was a high point of Egyptian labor mobilization, and workers were beginning to create independent unions. This was also the year that, according to a WikiLeaks document, the United States decided it would be effective to “promote freedom of association and reform of Egypt's state-controlled labor unions.”47 State domination of unions, the real problem hindering their performance, is not addressed and even seems to have the implicit consent of the United States, despite the fact that independent unions were forming at the time.

The biggest difference between projects in Egypt and Jordan is the inclusion of far more programs focused on training election monitors and encouraging voting in Egypt. These projects mainly consisted of either capacity building for NGOs, so that they can better monitor elections, or get-out-the vote campaigns. For instance, in 2006, the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid received $30,000 to organize four day-long election-monitoring workshops, print eight pamphlets on the election-monitoring campaign, and set up an election-monitoring hotline.48 The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, also in 2006, was given $275,000 to strengthen the capacity of NGOs to monitor presidential and parliamentary elections through “pre-election technical assistance, election-day logistical support, and post-election roundtables,”49 despite the fact that the next parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt would be in 2010 and 2011, respectively. This particular program received over a quarter of a million dollars, but the basic problem of timing means that significant parts of this program never could have been implemented.

Though election-monitor training may seem like a concrete way to help ensure democratic practices, as can be seen in this example, it did nothing to stop the major regime abuses during elections. The Egyptian Judges Club probably did more to publicize these abuses, by virtue of their social status and credibility, than did those individuals trained by the United States. Since the 1990s, voter turnout for parliamentary elections has steadily decreased (47.99 percent in 1995, 28.13 percent in 2005, and 27.47 percent in 201050), while turnout for presidential elections was also low (22.95 percent in 200551). Moreover, encouraging people to vote in a corrupted system would not have been helpful in the first place, because their votes would have almost no chance of changing electoral outcomes.


On June 6, 2010, a young man named Khaled Said, who was not particularly political, was dragged out of an Internet café in Alexandria by the police and publicly beaten to death. Soon after, around 70 people gathered outside the police department demanding that the officers be brought to justice; many were beaten, dragged through the street, arrested and attacked by police dogs.52 This type of police brutality was not uncommon, but the medium of the Internet and camera phones allowed these images to spread rapidly. When the pictures of Said hit the Internet, a surge of protests took place, and violent suppression of them became common. Because he had not been very political and had not threatened the state in any way, ordinary people widely began to see that any of them could be subject to the same abuse, regardless of their politics. One 19-year-old at a protest in July was quoted to have said, “This is an extraordinary case. The guy was tortured and killed on the street. I did not know him but I cannot shut up forever.”53 When Wael Ghonim created the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said,” it reflected this growing realization; 473,000 people joined the group by January 2011.54 This became a major slogan of protesters during the Arab Spring uprisings.

The former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammad ElBaradei, had returned to Egypt in early 2010 and seemed to be a figure that the opposition could rally around. He called for a boycott of the parliamentary elections, which most opposition groups agreed to. The Muslim Brotherhood decided to participate for the stated reason that, without opposition, the regime would not have to crack down, and the coercion could not be exposed. However, they also boycotted the later rounds.

The strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 elections and the increasing number of people protesting against the regime led to even worse abuses in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The tradition of arresting Muslim Brothers and other opposition elements before elections continued. There were crackdowns on media, with the regime closing 19 TV and satellite channels, hacking websites, and assaulting and jailing journalists.55 In 2007, a series of constitutional changes had been enacted that were meant to show that the regime was democratizing, but really ended up ensuring NDP domination in the 2010 election. Article 88 was changed, limiting the ability of the judiciary to oversee election proceedings. Article 5 was also revised, prohibiting the creation of a party based on religious lines. Article 127 was changed to allow the parliament to withdraw confidence from the prime minister without a referendum, but Article 136 was changed as well, to allow the president to dissolve parliament without a referendum.56 Vote buying and box stuffing were common yet again. The NDP won 97 percent of the seats.57

By this time, the fears of indiscriminate police brutality and Gamal Mubarak's inheriting power from his father were not the only important factors sparking discontent. Unemployment, inflation, food prices and corruption were rising, and privatization of industries was continuing. Ten days after the Tunisian uprising ousted Ben Ali, on January 25, 2011, Egyptian protesters took to the streets en masse. This was also National Police Day, and it was chosen to highlight police brutality. Tens of thousands of protesters showed up in Cairo, Alexandria, Aswan, Ismailia, Suez and Mahalla al-Kubra, making this one of the most important protest days by far in the past decade.58 The initial demands of the protesters were (1) raising the monthly minimum wage to 1,200 Egyptian pounds ($215), (2) assisting the unemployed, (3) ending the state of emergency, (4) dismissing Minister of the Interior Habib al-Adli, (5) releasing prisoners detained without charges, (6) holding new and fair parliamentary elections, and (7) establishing a two-term constitutional limit for the presidency.59 Soon, the prime goal and main point of unity became Mubarak's immediate resignation.

On January 26, the regime shut down Internet access to most of the country in hopes that protesters would be unable to organize. However, because of the history of protests and consistent use of the same venues and times, as well as the fact that many people had remained at protest sites since the day before, this measure did not have the intended effect. The January 28, 2011, “Million Man March” went ahead as planned and was hugely successful. After Friday prayers in Cairo, security forces attempted to keep protesters away from Tahrir Square, but they soon broke through the blockades. Hundreds of thousands of people not only participated, but also defied the 6:00 p.m. curfew instated by the regime. Protesters could be seen holding up tear-gas containers and ammunition with “Made in the USA” engraved on them, evidence of the long history of U.S. military funding of internal repression. In the ensuing days, people continued to stream into the protests, and violence escalated. On February 2, Mubarak supporters rode through Tahrir Square beating protesters, who stood their ground for the most part. Several violent clashes erupted in other cities as well. On February 10, 2011, Mubarak promised not to run for another term, but, when even more protesters took to the streets the next day, calling for him to leave, he was forced to resign.

It is estimated that the protests in Tahrir reached heights of one to two million people.60 Hundreds of thousands protested on various days in Alexandria, Ismailia, Mansoura and Tanta, and thousands more protested in smaller cities and villages all over Egypt. The estimated total turnout over the span of these 18 days was 6.2 million.61 However, it has been noted that these uprisings, despite some popular figures taking part, have had no real identifiable leadership. Most of the legal opposition forces did not have large followings and have usually been unable to mobilize large numbers. Most of these groups were actually discredited for their lack of action at the start of the protests.62 While the Ghad party endorsed the January 25, 2011, protest, most others had vague stances.63 The Tajamu party even went so far as to refuse to endorse the demonstrators out of respect for the police. The Muslim Brothers did not even initially endorse the event; only after successes did most of these political parties begin to support the demonstrators.

The Muslim Brotherhood, when it lent its support to the protests, also swelled their ranks, though Muslim Brotherhood supporters are estimated to have made up only around 10 percent of the demonstrators.64 Though Kifaya, April 6, and the newly created January 25 movements have all been important in breaking taboos and bringing the opposition together, they were not hierarchical enough to be credited with this level of mobilization. Unless there is strong and loyal membership, the influence of leaders will not be the most important factor in, for instance, a person's choice to occupy Tahrir Square. Though they definitely helped to mobilize protesters during these three weeks, ultimately the success rested on the actions of ordinary people not affiliated with any particular group. Kifaya has never had over a few thousand members, and April 6 has not had over 100,000, with most members only involved via Facebook. This is also true for the We Are All Khaled Said group.

These movements and Facebook groups, while important in mobilizing people, were not critical. In addition, members of Facebook groups do not constitute the same type of hierarchal and structured group that is typically noted in civil society literature. They are far too loose to really be considered organized. Because there is no leadership, more agency must be given to individuals who choose to participate from these types of groups than in, for instance, a political party. Party leaders can actively mobilize people; bloggers can only create a spark, possibly moving someone to action. Moreover, according to a later Gallup Poll, only 17 percent of the protesters had home Internet access.65 In this case, it seems, people mobilized themselves and each other more than specific groups or leaders organized people. None of these groups had the firm membership bases to organize this scale of protest. As Joel Benin and Fredric Vairel note,

Many of the extra-parliamentary oppositional figures who had been active since 2000 participated in the demonstrations or spoke to the media. But they did not organize or lead the events. The vast majority of the participants in the demonstrations had no prior political affiliation or participation in public activity.66

Though organized civil society played a role in these events, it was informal connections and organization that made the protests as big and successful as they were.

Perhaps more telling of the U.S. position on a democratic Egypt has been its post-Mubarak decisions. The United States decided not to place conditions on its $1.3 billion of annual military funding, despite the military's continuation of emergency laws, mass arrests, violent breaking up of protests, and harassment of opposition, not to mention the military massacre of Copts. As Andrew Shapiro, the State Department's Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs stated,

Egypt is a pivotal country in the Middle East and a long-time partner of the United States. We have continued to rely on Egypt to support and advance U.S. interests in the region, including peace with Israel, confronting Iranian ambitions, interdicting smugglers, and supporting Iraq. Egypt's well-being is important for the region as a whole. Conditioning assistance risks putting our relations with Egypt in a contentious place at the worst possible moment.67

The United States also accepted the military timeline for transition, which rejected a civilian transitional government and pushed presidential elections to 2013. Though the military has since altered this timeline due to widespread protests, it had refused to comment on political prisoners or military tribunals, and many Egyptians have serious concerns regarding whether these elections were “free and fair.” Furthermore, the U.S. State Department refused to comment on the violent period leading up to the first round of parliamentary elections on November 28, 2011. In the State Department press briefing that day, after three days of violence that left 35 protesters dead and 1,500 seriously injured, the spokesperson refrained from stating more than that the United States “deplores” violence on all sides and wants to see free elections on Nov. 28.68 While it later stated that the military probably had used too much force against protesters, 21 tons of tear gas from the United States arrived at the Suez port during that week.69 It has also stated its intention to pressure the military to accept IMF and World Bank loans,70 despite a clear antipathy for liberal economics on the part of Egyptians.71 The United States has stated explicitly, “Now, our overall strategy is clearly to support them going in the direction that we would want them to go in.”72 All of these issues clearly indicate that, not only did the United States not mind undemocratic military rule in Egypt, it even prefers it to real democratic power sharing among Egyptians.

The United States attempted to talk to opposition forces, give money for DP, and rhetorically promote democratic ideals. However, these attempts seem to have had little to no impact on the effectiveness of the opposition. Because those whom the United States dealt with were (nominally) democratic already and seem not to have changed their views at any point during the time they worked with the United States, it cannot really be said that the United States “created democrats” in this case. Beyond this, the Arab Spring uprising (not to mention those over the past decade that drew large numbers into the streets) was highly decentralized, ultimately leaderless, unorganized and spontaneous to the point that it would have been impossible for the established political opposition to take any more than minimal credit. This means that even if the United States had successfully supported people like Ahmed Maher and George Ishaaq or — according to the general goal of DP — had turned them into democrats in the first place, U.S. DP could not have made much of an impact on the uprising. They were not responsible for mobilizing people; the individuals and informal groups that actually went to the squares or went on strike during those 18 days were mainly doing so, not because of their connections to organized civil society, but because they came to believe it was their right to demand certain things of their government. They became democrats on their own.

Only 18 percent of Egyptians approve of the U.S. role in the region.73 Seventy-five percent oppose the United States' sending aid to groups in Egypt, and only 13 percent approve.74 Eighty-two percent believe that if Iran had nuclear weapons, the Middle East would be better off, and only six percent think it would be worse. The Egyptian public is highly opposed to the neoliberal economic systems that the United States has sought to pressure the country to adopt over the past few decades. The foreign-policy issues that sparked large-scale protesting in the country were in solidarity with the second Intifada (and against the U.S. tilt toward Israel), against the U.S. war in Iraq, and in solidarity with Hezbollah against Israel. These are still strong issues for many Egyptians. Like Jordanians, Egyptians have not agreed with basic U.S. goals and security needs in the region. Not only does this bring into question whether meaningful participation for citizens will jeopardize Egypt's close relationship with the United States on many of these issues; it also casts doubt on what the United States will do about it. As it stands, Egypt is currently in a state of transition; it has been since 2000.


If we add the case of Syria, these points become even clearer; those inside the country did not receive U.S. DP aid, whereas those in Egypt and Jordan did. Yet, Syria has seen some of the largest protest movements of the Arab Spring. This case poses a critical problem for the idea that U.S. DP helped bring on the protests in any major way — U.S. DP is not a common element in the protest movements of the Arab Spring. Despite the U.S. antipathy for the Assad regime and its hope of seeing a pro-Israel leader replace Bashar, the United States had nothing to do with the grassroots activism seen during this movement. Though the United States kept tabs on internal opposition in Syria, as in Egypt, it didn't help them organize or develop roots in society. Even if they had, as was also the case in Egypt, the opposition figures themselves did not start the uprising, and after it erupted they had little control over it. As civil-society literature has proclaimed, democratization happens when people collect themselves and push back against the state; this is what has happened for many in Syria. However, contrary to this literature, a long history of organized and hierarchical NGOs was not necessary, and the people who created the Local Coordinating Committees and other major players on the ground were not aided in any way by the United States. Apart from the fact that DP did not actually help create movement toward democracy in Jordan or Egypt, in Syria it absolutely could not have. This anomaly is an important one. If Syrians could stand up en masse, facing one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and call for democratic change without outside help, with few other experiences of protest, and without much organized “civil society,” it seems that any group of people could. This questions one of the major underlying assumptions of DP — that people need it.

In one of its press briefings in 2011, the U.S. Department of State said,

Our assistance is part of our foreign policy… [T]he assistance that we provide is part of our overall strategy toward these countries. Now, our overall strategy is clearly to support them going in the direction that we would want them to go in, as you say… Now, if they are not, if they are going the wrong way, we still engage. We have to — because we want to try to bend them in the right — encourage them in the right direction.75

DP is understood to be inextricably linked to security and U.S. interests. The belief is that, if people have a democratic way to “dry the pool of discontent,” the extremist elements in society will dwindle away. Democracies are more likely to secure peace, open markets and combat terrorism — the question is, what happens if they don't help to secure these and other U.S. interests? These types of remarks explicitly claim that democracy can be viewed in a sort of means-ends relationship, where the means are democracy and the end is more security and stability for the United States and its allies. A means-ends relationship of any kind inevitably focuses on results. This is problematic; if the United States exercises control over a country's economic or foreign-relations policy, that country cannot really be democratic. It limits the types of things that can be determined by internal dialogue. For instance, Egyptians may be able to discuss which new dam projects on the Nile to approve or whether Islam is compatible with democracy, but not to reassess Egypt's peace treaty with Israel or whether the United States is granted preferential use of the Suez Canal. These are problems that fundamentally undermine the ideas of self-rule, sovereignty and internal dialogue on national issues. This inevitably means that the United States will not accept all outcomes of democracy. We have seen this happen time and again in the Arab world.

Democracy-promotion is part of securing larger U.S. interests around the world. It is not innocent, and it is not apolitical; it is, by its very nature, an external and unaccountable power attempting to shape and control the internal dynamics of other countries. The United States is not engaged in DP for the end of “giving oppressed people a voice” or to “promote the greater good,” but for cultivating allies and making sure its interests are secure. The systemic problems of DP ensure that the relationship between the United States and the Arab world is one of power and domination; in its most benign form, it is a teacher-student relationship. The democratic “methods of consultation, persuasion, negotiation, cooperative intelligence”76 cannot be achieved by these types of relationships because they function only in one direction. There is no give-and-take, no reciprocal understanding and no discussion. It is one-way information dissemination coupled with the expectation that Arabs soak up this information without question. This is inherently undemocratic. The methods of democracy, constantly remembered and consistently used, are the only means by which people can both bring about democratic change and improve it for the better.


  • 1

    “Remarks by President George W. Bush at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy,” November 6, 2003,

  • 2

    Morten Valbjorn, “Post-Democratization Lessons from the Jordanian ‘Success Story,’” Foreign Policy 19, no. 3 (2010).

  • 3

    Valbjorn, “Post-Democratization Lessons from the Jordanian ‘Success Story.’”

  • 4

    U.S. Agency for International Development, “USAID in Jordan: Democracy and Governance,” June 12, 2006,

  • 5

    Freedom House scores countries on a range of 0–7 in terms of both political and civil liberties; a 0 means a country is completely free, and a 7 means a country is absolutely not free. No country has ever been given a 0, so 1 is typically viewed as the most free a state can be.

  • 6

    USAID in Jordan, “About Us – Budget,” January 14, 2007,

  • 7

    Ken Silverstein, “U.S., Jordan Forge Closer Ties in the Covert War on Terrorism,”Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2005.

  • 8

    WikiLeaks, “Subject: Jordan Scenesetter for Vice President Biden,” 10AMMAN459, 2010,

  • 9

    Silverstein, “U.S., Jordan Forge Closer Ties in the Covert War on Terrorism.”

  • 10

    USAID-Jordan, “Democracy and Governance in Jordan,” August 30, 2005,

  • 11

    Glenn E. Robinson, “Defensive Democratization in Jordan,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 30, no. 3 (1998): 396.

  • 12

    Anna Khakee, “A Long-Lasting Controversy: Western Democracy Promotion in Jordan,”EuroMeSCo, (2009).

  • 13

    Amaney A. Jamal, Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World (Princeton University Press), 124.

  • 14

    WikiLeaks, “Subject: Amman, Media Reaction on Reactions to the President's Speech, Riyadh Bombings,” 03AMMAN7339, 2003,

  • 15

    WikiLeaks, “Subject: Amman, Media Reaction on Reactions to the President's Speech, Riyadh Bombings.”

  • 16

    Khakee, “A Long-Lasting Controversy: Western Democracy Promotion in Jordan.”

  • 17

    These numbers are based on the author's collection of program descriptions for projects in Jordan from MEPI, USAID and the NED websites; most of them were post-2005 projects.

  • 18

    USAID in Jordan, “Democracy and Governance – 2006,” August 21, 2011,

  • 19

    National Endowment for Democracy, “Jordan,” August 21, 2011,

  • 20

    National Endowment for Democracy, “Jordan,” August 21, 2011,

  • 21

    Hamza Mansour, “Jordan Protests: Thousands Rally over Economic Policies,” BBC, January 21, 2011.

  • 22

    “Thousands Protest in Jordan,” Al Jazeera English, January 28, 2011.

  • 23

    Amani Ghoul, “Jordan Protests Turn Violent,” Al Jazeera English, February 18, 2011,

  • 24


  • 25

    Thameen Kheetan, “Newly Launched National Front for Reform Seeks Rule of Law,”Jordan Times, October 28, 2011.

  • 26

    Shadi Hamid and Courtney Freer, “How Stable Is Jordan? King Abdullah's Half-Hearted Reforms and the Challenge of the Arab Spring,” Brookings Doha Center, 2011.

  • 27

    Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler, “Has the U.S. Poisoned Democracy in the Arab World?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 6, 2008.

  • 28

    See endnote 5.

  • 29

    Lila Rajiva, “The CIA's Rendition Flights to Secret Prisons: The Torture-Go-Round,”CounterPunch, December 5, 2005.

  • 30

    WikiLeaks, “Subject: Scenesetter for Special Envoy Mitchell's January 26 visit to Cairo ref: Cairo 118 (assessment post-Gaza),” 09Cairo119, June 25, 2009,

  • 31

    WikiLeaks, “SUBJECT: 2005 IN EGYPT: SERIOUS CHANGE RAISES SERIOUS,” 05CAIRO9314, December 15, 2005,

  • 32

    USAID Egypt, “Budget Information,” September 21, 2011,

  • 33

    Office of the Inspector General USAID, “Audit of USAID/Egypt's Democracy and Governance Activities, 2009,” November 19, 2011,

  • 34

    Elizabeth Bumiller, “Pentagon Places Its Bet on a General in Egypt,”New York Times, March 10, 2011.

  • 35

    “U.S. Embassy Cables: Egypt's Strategic Importance to the U.S.,”Guardian, January 28, 2011.

  • 36

    USAID Egypt, “Budget Information.”

  • 37

    Erin A. Snyder and David A. Faris, “The Arab Spring: U.S. Democracy Promotion in Egypt,” Middle East Policy 18, no. 3 (2011): 4251.

  • 38

    Office of the Inspector General USAID, “Audit of USAID/Egypt's Democracy and Governance Activities.”

  • 39


  • 40

    These numbers are based on the author's collection of program descriptions for projects in Egypt from MEPI, USAID and the NED websites; most of them were post-2005 projects.

  • 41

    Office of the Inspector General USAID, “Audit of USAID/Egypt's Democracy and Governance Activities.”

  • 42


  • 43

    Maye Kassem, “Effects of Democratization Reforms in Egypt,” in Democratization and Development: New Political Strategies for the Middle East, ed. Dietrich Jung (Palgrave Macmillian, 2006), 144.

  • 44

    CIPE was also a major recipient of NED funds in Jordan.

  • 45

    See NED Annual Reports: Egypt 2005–2010.

  • 46

    Ann M. Lesch, “Egypt's Spring: Causes of the Revolution,” Middle East Policy 18, no. 3 (2011): 35.

  • 47

    WikiLeaks, “SUBJECT: EGYPT: UPDATED DEMOCRACY STRATEGY,” 07CAIRO3001, October 9, 2007,

  • 48

    National Endowment for Democracy, “2006 Annual Report: Egypt,” November 20, 2011,

  • 49


  • 50

    International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, “Voter Turnout Data for Egypt,” October 5, 2011,

  • 51


  • 52

    Lesch, “Egypt's Spring,” 28.

  • 53


  • 54

    Joel Benin and Fredric Vairel, “Afterward: Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt,” in Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, eds. Joel Beinin and Frederic Vairel (Stanford University Press), 243.

  • 55

    Lesch, “Egypt's Spring.”

  • 56

    Nathan Brown, Michele Dunne, and Amr Hamzawy, “Egypt's Controversial Constitutional Amendments,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 23, 2007.

  • 57

    Lesch, “Egypt's Spring.”

  • 58

    Benin and Vairel, “Afterward,” 242–243.

  • 59


  • 60

    “Live Blogs: Egypt,” Al-Jazeera English, February 1, 2011,; “Protesters flood Egypt Streets,” Al-Jazeera English, February 2, 2011,

  • 61

    Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, “Egypt from Tahrir to Transition,” June 20, 2011.

  • 62

    Benin and Vairel, “Afterward,” 246.

  • 63

    Ibid., 243–244.

  • 64

    Ibid., 246.

  • 65

    Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, “Egypt from Tahrir to Transition.”

  • 66


  • 67

    Paul Mutter, “Arab Spring? What Arab Spring? U.S. Policy in the Middle East Shows No Change since the Fall of Mubarak,”Mondoweiss, November 11, 2011.

  • 68

    Victoria Nuland, “U.S. Department of State Daily Press Briefing,” November 21, 2011.

  • 69

    Manar Ammar, “Egypt Imports 21 Tons of Tear Gas from the U.S., Port Staff Refuses to Sign for It,”Bikyamasr, November 28, 2011,

  • 70

    William Taylor, “Special Briefing on U.S. Support for the Democratic Transitions Underway in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya,” U.S. Department of State, November 3, 2011.

  • 71

    Arab NGO Network for Development, “Egyptian and Tunisian People Revolted against Unjust Economic Models Aid Supporting the People's Revolutions Should Not Restrict the Democratic Transition,” November 20, 2011,

  • 72

    William Taylor, “Special Briefing on U.S. Support for the Democratic Transitions…”

  • 73

    Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, “Egypt from Tahrir to Transition.”

  • 74


  • 75

    William Taylor, “Special Briefing on U.S. Support for the Democratic Transitions Underway in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya,” U.S. Department of State, November 3, 2011.

  • 76

    John Dewey, “Democratic Ends Require Democratic Means,” in Theories of Democracy: A Reader, ed. Ronald Terchek and Thomas Conte (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), 167.