Arabs divided on prospects for change

Following Arab Spring uprisings, poll finds North Africans are most optimistic of political future, Gulf residents wariest.

By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
June 30, 2011 13:53
Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square

Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square Cairo 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

 
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Fears and doubts about the Arab Spring and its ability to bring change to the Middle East grow as one moves eastward, a survey commissioned by the Doha Debates has found.

The online poll, which was conducted by the YouGovSiraj polling organization, found that Arabs living in North Africa were the most optimistic about the ability of mass protests to reduce corruption and to usher in democracy while their peers in the Gulf states were the most skeptical. Gulf Arabs also expressed the most fear about taking to the street to protest.

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The poll, conducted in the second week of June, comes as the Arab Spring has stalled. Protests quickly toppled two North African chiefs – Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak a month later – but the leaders of Libya and Syria have resisted. Yemen’s president is still clinging to power even after he was severely injured while Bahrain’s ruler suppressed unrest with the aid of Saudi troops.

“There’s certainly a realization that the euphoria after Tunisia and Egypt may have been premature,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Media Line. “They’re starting to realize that it will take time. Revolutions are not easy and they’re often bloody. That’s the new sort of consensus.”

Asked whether it was “useless” for Arab governments to resist the Arab Spring, 82 percent of the respondents from the North African countries of Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya answered yes. In the Levant countries of Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq respondents were only slightly less optimistic, with 78 percent saying yes. In the Gulf, the proportion fell to 67 percent.

Asked how “scared” they were to demonstrate against their own government, North Africans proved to be the most fearless, with only 16 percent responding they would be frightened. In the Levant countries, the proportion rose to 28 percent while in the Gulf, it climbed to 53 percent.



“There’s a lot of uncertainty but I don’t think that people are pessimistic. One of the key signs is that in the reality of the situation there is a huge disparity between Yemen, Libya and Syria on the one hand and Egypt and Tunisia on the other,” David Pollock, who is principal adviser to Pechter Middle East Polls. “It makes sense to look at it country by country.”

North Africa has seen the most Arab Spring turmoil since a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire last December to protest mistreatment by the government. Libyan leader has been battling rebels, backed by NATO forces, to a standoff. Morocco has seen much milder unrest, but King Mohammed VI agreed to meet protesters’ demands for reform with a referendum slated to be held this Friday to curb his constitutional powers.

Buttressed by oil-generated wealth that has lifted incomes and enabled governments to provide jobs and subsidies, the Gulf’s monarchies aside of Bahrain have seen little or no unrest this year. In the Levant, Syrian President Bashar Assad has struggle to quell a rebellion that broke in March, despite promises for reform and dialogue and a crackdown that has led to an estimated 1,400 deaths.

The Doha Debates poll provided region-wide measures of attitudes toward the Arab Spring, but the population surveyed didn’t match the characteristics of the region. It was heavily slanted toward Gulf countries, who accounted for 56 percent of the respondent and toward men, who accounted for about two third of those who answered. It was also heavily weighted toward the young, with people under age 40 accounting for 90 percent of the 1,002 respondents from 17 countries.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt remained shadowed by doubts about their ability to make the transition to democracy.

Egypt, now ruled by a transitional military government, is slated to hold parliamentary and president elections in the autumn, but many in the liberal opposition have expressed concern that only the Muslim Brotherhood will be organized and ready to conduct a campaign. In Tunisia, where activists accuse the caretaker government of being dominated by Ben-Ali supporters, elections are set for October 23.

Nevertheless, 70 percent of the North African respondents in Doha Debates poll said that countries where the opposition has ousted the leader “real political change” will ensure. Only 51 percent of the Levant respondents were so optimistic and 45 percent of those in the Gulf, the survey showed.

Moreover, 85 percent of the North Africans said they believe the Arab world will be “more democratic” in five years’ time. In the Levant and the Gulf, the numbers fell to 59-60 percent.

“Egyptians seem pretty intent on seeing this process through. There is no desire to return to some kind of military dictatorship,” said Hamid of Brookings. “That bodes well. Egypt is likely to become a flawed but functioning democratizing state. The same goes for Tunisia.”

The optimism expressed by Arabs in the Doha Debate poll stands in sharp contrast to doubts expressed by Western leaders, who have been debating how to support the opposition while preventing instability and the rise to power of Islamists perceived as hostile to Western interests.

A poll of leading figures in government, the media, law academia and non-government organizations in the U.S. and Europe, released in May, found that some 56 percent said they agreed strongly or somewhat that the Arab Spring risks being “captured by the familiar forces of authoritarianism.”

Even though North Africans are bullish about the prospects for democracy and change, 40 percent “totally” or “somewhat” agree that foreign conspiracies are fueling the Arab Spring rebellions. Nevertheless, that is a lower proportion than elsewhere in the Arab world. In the Gulf, 52 percent said conspiracies were behind the rebellion and in the Levant 57 percent said so.

Pollock, who is also a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that his polling showed that the chief concerns of the Arab public are the economy and unemployment as well as the place of Islam in democratic societies.

Although an Internet poll misses people without online access, YouGovSiraj says it believes respondents answer more truthfully in the anonymous on-line environment. The respondents are selected from some 220,000 people who have registered to be part of its on-line pool of volunteers.

Doha Debates, which is operated by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, bring together experts to debate contemporary issues before live and television audiences. In the debate on the Arab Spring, which was conducted at the end of May, 73 percent of those approved the resolution “This house believes resistance to the Arab Spring is futile."

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