Democracy promotion – Disliked at home and abroad

The Pew Research Center recently published new data on the decline of American support for democracy promotion (thanks to Democracy Digest for alerting to this data). According to the May 2011 poll, only 13 percent of Americans support democracy promotion efforts in contrast to almost one-third after 9/11.

The end of the RCD brought a political vacuum to Tunisian political parties

From Tunisia 2011

What is interesting from this data is the seeming convergence of American public opinion with skeptics here in the Arab world. More and more in the Tunisian press (and as the WSJ reports, in the Egyptian administration as well), critics are lashing out against the efforts of the Obama administration to promote democracy following the Arab Spring.

Why the skepticism?

From the Arab perspective, the root of these critiques is a skepticism of both American motives (not surprising), but also a skepticism that these kind of efforts can even work.

The recent trip of the Ennadha (the main Islamist party) spokesman Hamadi el-Jabali to Washington to meet with senior administration officials and members of Congress was seen as a tacit endorsement of the party in Tunisia.

While democracy promotion groups have been busy conducting relatively benign trainings on voter outreach, the mere mention of these high level meetings brings to mind the history of Western interference in Tunisia during the Ben Ali regime.

This idea of American king-making has long been associated with U.S. democracy promotion efforts, something that was certainly reinforced in the minds of both Arabs and in the U.S. through the failed democracy promotion efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What does this mean for Tunisia?

The consequence of this mistrust of democracy promotion efforts is likely to be minimal in the U.S. – the amount of money spent is insignificant compared to, for example, air combat operations in Libya.

However, the skepticism could have important consequences in Tunisia (and other nascent Arab democracies) because internationally funded democracy promotion efforts generally benefit smaller parties – of which there are now over 100 in Tunisia.

While larger parties are often connected to international movements (such as labor, chambers of commerce, or religious groups), these small parties  are not well-organized or well-funded. The repression of the previous regime made sure that they are inexperienced at campaign management, outreach, and media relations – the exact things democracy promotion outfits like IRI and NDI target.

Skepticism toward foreign aid and intervention tends to be self-fulfilling. The less one is exposed to it, the more one is skeptical of its motives. This may prove to be the case for the American public as much as for the Tunisian electorate.

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