Barriers to Democracy mainly focuses on the dimensions of social capital in the West Bank and the impact it has on processes of democratisation. The sociological notion of social capital has been a key concept in social sciences for a prolonged period however; the bulk of research in this field has been carried out in Western societies. Amaney A. Jamal attempts to deconstruct the common understanding of the relationship between social capital and democracy and claims that the bearing of social capital on democracy varies in different political contexts. Thus the components of social capital such as interpersonal trust and civic engagement are shaped diversely in Palestine, and for instance, in Italy. According to Jamal, civil society is not always supportive of democracy. The findings are based on a survey and a series of interviews carried out in the West Bank in 1998 and 1999. The author's research demonstrates that some civil associations may back authoritative regimes for various reasons. Jamal explains the complex associational landscape that has developed in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Apart from discussing the question of civil society, the author familiarises the readers with the historical and political background of the PNA. The issue of the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict is left aside and the focus is shifted towards the Palestinian society itself and its response to the Oslo Accords and the PNA.
Although social capital is a key word in the aforementioned publication, the reader is not provided with an explicit definition of the term. Its meaning, as adopted for the purpose of the book, may be only deduced. It seems that the concept of social capital has been broken down into two major components: interpersonal trust and civic engagement. Unlike Putman, who claims - in Making Democracy Work - that these two factors work together towards the strengthening of democratic polities, Jamal provides evidence that there is no such relation in the political reality of the West Bank. While Putnam's thesis may be accurate for a democratic state, the author argues that interpersonal trust and civic engagement do not correlate positively in non-democratic entities.
One underlying reason is widespread clientelism and corruption. As Jamal's survey shows, interpersonal trust appears between clients and their patrons and do not affect people who oppose this highly non-democratic practice. Corruption and clientelism seem to function as guarantees of trust. People have confidence in the regime because the authorities care for them and support their actions in exchange for their loyalty. This mechanism applies to the West Bank's civil sector. The author states that in the 1990s pro-PNA associations were more likely to get state funding and other forms of support, while other associations - potential critics of the regime - were marginalised. This situation resulted in the politicisation of civic organisations in the West Bank. Apparently, neutral associations which deal with charity work or sports became affiliates of political factions. The Palestinian associational landscape became polarised along the axis of PNA supporters and opponents.
This split in the third sector in the West Bank leads to another variable in Jamal's research, namely support for the PNA or lack thereof among members of associations. It is worth mentioning that civic engagement in Palestine was in full bloom during the British Mandate and it took the form of local charitable groups and clubs, often religious or family based. The conflict with Israel seems to have politicised and united the associations of that time, and the Oslo Accords let them hope for a better future. Unity was shattered when the new rule turned out to be a failure. Civil activists who did not want to further compromise, and withdrew their support for the PNA, met with discrimination from the state apparatus. They felt deluded and lost trust in the PNA. What is more, the findings reveal that these people, although actively engaged in civil society, have little interpersonal trust. Despite being less trustworthy, the members of anti-PNA associations show high levels of support for democratic institutions and high levels of civic indicators such as community engagement. The data was inversed in the case of activists who accorded the PNA with their backing. As Jamal shows, the levels of interpersonal trust are higher in pro-PNA associations. At the same time these groups show low interest in the development of democratic institutions. Jamal points to the vertical structure of pro-PNA associations to explain this phenomenon. In these vertically structured organisations the members are less disposed to engage one another in seeking political change. The protection that embraces them accounts for the fact that the hierarchical status quo is maintained and the feeling of security and trust prevails. In horizontal anti-PNA associations, on the other hand, cooperation between equal individuals reinforces civic engagement but trust is low and the state is not considered a guarantor of law or order.
Besides corruption and clientelism, which considerably hinders democratic change, there are some institutional obstacles to the functioning of democracy supportive associations. Jamal diverts from Palestine to show democracy-constraining practices in more entrenched polities and presents the political situations in Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, and the role of associations within these states. Similar to the case of Palestine, the associational terrain in the aforementioned countries is polarised. Support for the regime is rewarded with funding, while opponents often find it difficult to register their activities to operate legally. Jamal provides some examples of authoritative regimes using legislative means to impede the creation and operation of organisations that promote democracy. Other measures commonly used in such political contexts are: censorship; refusals to grant licences; as well as media smear campaigns.
Barriers to Democracy assists readers understand that there is no simple relationship between civil society and democracy in the Arab world. Jamal's research disproves the thesis - prevalent in Western discourses - that there is a positive linkage between these two phenomena. Among the authoritative regimes of the Arab world some civic associations prefer to support their authoritative benefactors rather than promote democracy. Pro-democracy organisations, on the other hand, may be deprived of interpersonal trust, which is considered a crucial component of current democratic state models. A key reason for this inverse correlation is that civic associations in the aforementioned Arab countries have to operate in quite different political and social conditions. In the state-centralised political context, where corruption, clientelism and patronage are the basic rules of social relations, democracy-promoting associations must struggle not to fall victim to the system. The acceptance of corrupted principles in associations generates ‘bad' social capital and hinders the way to democracy.
Barriers to Democracy provides convincing insights into social capital in the West Bank but the focus throughout the book is on associations rather than average Palestinian people and Jamal does not limit the text to social capital. Instead, Jamal presents a necessary introduction to the polities of the Arab world and discusses some central aspects of political life in four countries providing details on political leadership, legislation and human rights. This broad perspective helps the reader to form a comprehensive image of the political situation and civil engagement in this part of the world, and makes Barriers to Democracy a good scholarly reading.