Since 2005, the Arab Barometer project that Amaney A. Jamal co-founded has interviewed ordinary people in the Arab world about their views on (according to ArabBarometer.org) "governance, political life, and political, social, and cultural values."
So Jamal had extraordinary insight into the Arab Spring that began in 2010, and its aftermath. In a phone interview last week, she said she had seen the seeds of change but didn't know if or when they would blossom. "It was very clear and obvious in our public-opinion polls that the status quo was not sustainable," she said. "That the levels of frustration, the levels of mass discontent with the status quo were there. What was not clear was whether ... there was going to be some sort of trigger to bring it all down."
Jamal will present "The Arab Spring: Did All Go Wrong?" - St. Ambrose University's Folwell Lecture in Political Science & Pre-Law - on February 9, and the answer to that question should be obvious enough to anybody who pays attention to international news.
"It looks like all has gone wrong," said Jamal, the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics at Princeton University and the author of the 2012 book Of Empires & Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All? "Since the Arab Spring, we've had authoritarian reversal in Egypt, we've had state collapse in Lybia and Syria. Arguably Yemen is also collapsing. We've had further authoritarian retrenchment in other parts of the Arab world. So, on the surface, it doesn't look like things are going really well."
If there's a silver lining to the Arab Spring, she said, it's minor: "It's really emboldened citizens to speak their minds and express their opinions in a way that we're never going to go back to an era where public opinion doesn't matter. ... People are much more relaxed about expressing their political viewpoints."
Yet she added that she doesn't believe there will be more revolutions in the near future: "I don't think we're going to see much movement away from the status quo. ... I think regimes are going to be more careful about how blatant and oppressive their abuse of power can be. They're going to be more sensitive moving forward. But I do think this is a very long process. ... Certainly, we've seen the first step toward something. It's not clear where that first step is going."
Jamal said the people who went to the streets during the Arab Spring feel burned by the results. For widespread protests to happen again, "you're going to have to see some kind of generational shift."
Surveys, she said, continue to show that people in Arab countries want change: "Levels of discontent are still very significant. There's still a lot of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Grievances are still very severe."
But that's balanced by a new recognition that dampens the push for revolution: "The only thing that I think is on the minds of citizens in ways that weren't there [before the Arab Spring] is this idea of whether citizens can really afford sequential revolutions. ... The economic challenges that citizens faced in these countries after the Arab Spring were so severe, it's a legitimate concern to say that if those economic worries are not met with real, tangible economic policies for reform, I doubt you're going to see the type of mobilization on the streets from this generation of protesters."
Understanding this dynamic, Jamal said, requires an understanding of Arab views on what "democracy" represents. In surveys, she said, roughly half of respondents believe democracy is about political freedom - "the way we understand democracy in the West. But another 50 percent will say it's about economic justice, economic opportunity, finding employment, being able to feed my children." And those people, she added, are "really disillusioned [with the Arab Spring] because ... it wasn't good for the economy - for trade, for investment."
Fundamentally, she said, democratic reform "needs to be ... complemented directly with 'How do we bring more political stability to the region?' and 'How do we bring more economic stability to the region?'"
And that's the reason for the reversals: The people who've come to power after regime changes have been ill-equipped to govern and to forge essential international economic and political alliances. What citizens have realized is that change for change's sake is not good enough; change needs to happen with an eye toward stability. Jamal said that people in the region think: "What will the future leadership of my country look like, and what will that mean for the overall well-being of my country? We need to be cognizant of the fact that if we push too hard [for political reform and regime change], we might bring players to the fore that might not cooperate with our allies or with our clients, who are very important for the future trajectory of our countries."
So in Egypt, Mohamed Morsi was removed in a military coup that Jamal said had wide support among the citizenry. Although he was Egypt's first democratically elected head of state, Jamal said, "one year later ... he wasn't good enough" because he couldn't build relationships with the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Even in Tunisia - the one Arab Spring success story in terms of sustained democratic reform - there has been some regression. "Many in Tunisia believe that this last election really brought back remnants of the old regime," she said. "So even when we're seeing this complete democratic process, you're seeing that voters are preferring old regime types as a way of saying, 'Look, maybe things were not so bad under the old regime.' ... There is now this growing sentiment across the Arab world that these old regimes - although they were corrupt and oppressive and abused power - they were probably better for the country than the new players."
(And Jamal said that also drives American foreign policy - for example, with Saudi Arabia. The United States is "worried that if this regime falls in Saudi Arabia, you might get a government that's very uncooperative and even worse than this government. ... Being invested in political stability has its consequences.")
So citizens in Arab countries are left with three poor options, she said: the status quo, change that results in increased economic hardship, or change that might "create cracks in the security apparatus of these countries and allow movements like ISIS to penetrate your borders. ... They're all bad, but let's go with the better of the worse, which is 'Maybe the old regime was not so bad after all.' It is very disheartening to me."
And although Jamal doesn't see much light in the Arab Spring at this point, she said the United States can do more. Economies in these countries are going to be dependent on direct foreign investment and foreign trade, which "by default ... puts the international into the equation. And when you think about which countries are most invested in the Middle East internally, the United States is a key player."
Yet much economic and military aid the U.S. provides goes directly to governments - which fortifies the status quo and creates challenges if a regime is overthrown. The United States needs to "circumvent these governments, be able to work with local economic elite, to invest in projects that might create employment opportunities," Jamal said, citing Qualified Industrial Zones and free-trade zones as examples. "We need to do more of that."
Amaney A. Jamal will speak at 7 p.m. on Monday, February 9, at St. Ambrose University's Rogalski Center (at the corner of Ripley and Lombard streets in Davenport). The lecture is free and open to the public.
For more information on Jamal, visit AmaneyJamal.com.