Public opinion, democracy and foreign aid

The substance of democracy depends to a large extent on the free and fair dissemination of information and ideas. The link between freedom of speech and expression, so to say public opinion on the one hand and democracy on the other hand was explored by Alexander Meiklejohn by analyzing the significance of the First Amendment to the Constitution (1791), namely, the legal options for restricting freedom of speech in the United States. Meiklejohn argued that the concept of democracy is that of self-government by the people. The “clearest evidence that a government is not democratic, but is essentially despotic and alien” is if those in power are able to manipulate the people by withholding information and stifling criticism “in order to keep them from becoming too rebellious” (Meiklejohn 1948: 10). Free speech – free thought – is all the more important in democracies, since manipulation and propaganda can easily lead to the destruction of the highest good, namely, the self-government of the people.

This argument can be applied to the Middle East for two reasons. First, Western donors aim at building stable and enduring, ‘deep democracies’.  Indeed, the EU’s new response formulated after the Arab Spring explicitly states that its future approach “will be developed by listening, not only to requests for support from partner governments, but also to demands expressed by civil society” and ordinary people (COM 2011a: 3). Second, self-determination and the right to self-determination, even if they are not necessarily identical to self-government [the essence of the Wilsonian concept of self-determination consisted of the notion of self-government of peoples, Nawaz 1965: 84] is one of the most frequent and strongest argument, formulated against foreign powers and economic assistance included, both by governments and citizens asked in recipient countries, the MENA included (cf. Telhami 2013 on ‘identity selection’, the importance of dignity and the difficulties of separating the ‘domestic from the international’ during the ‘Arab Spring’).

It must also be kept in mind that public opinion is not truly ‘free’ in most countries in the region. Recalling the latest Freedom House report, the Middle East and North Africa registered the worst civil liberties scores of any region (Freedom House 2014). The relations between the state and the society, the state and the public or the state and the ‘civil society’ are much more contested than in either Meiklejohn’s America or in European minds. It requires us to interpret ‘local voices’, results of public opinion polls included, cautiously.

COM (2011a) A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Responsibility with the Southern Mediterranean. Joint Communication to the European Council, the European Parliament, the Council, The European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. March 8, 2011, Brussels: European Commission

Freedom House (2014) Freedom in the World 2014. Middle East and North Africa.

Meiklejohn, A. (1948) Free Speech and its Relation to Self-Government, New York: Harper Brothers

Nawaz, M. K. (1965) The Meaning and Range of Self-Determination. Duke International Law. Vol 14, No (1): 82-101.

Telhami, S. (2013) The World through Arab Eyes. Basic Books


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