Poll: Most Arabs want gov't reforms

Pollees from 17 countries favor wider political participation.

arab voter 88 (photo credit: )
arab voter 88
(photo credit: )
The majority of the Arab world thinks that Arab leaders are corrupt and cause destabilization in the region, according to a recent poll. The poll also showed that most Arabs want democratic reforms. But the democracy Arabs yearn for, show the polls, is far from the type US President Bush envisions. According to the survey by the Dubai-based Arabian Business magazine and the respected UK-based pollsters, YouGov, 71 percent of Arabs believed that “political leaders in the Arab world are "mostly corrupt politicians, who destabilize the region.” The survey was conducted between August 16 and September 15 using a cross-sample of society from the Middle East and North Africa region with a representative number of respondents from 17 different Arab countries. “It’s not surprising,” said Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel-Aviv University. ”People are dissatisfied from corruption and from leaders who are in power too long. Look at Egypt. Everybody wants reform in the Arab world.” Reform is also on the mind of most Arabs. “Wider political participation and more democracy were issues that 69% of respondents viewed as important,” reported the article in Arabian Business. “Some 65% believed economic liberalization was also important and 60% said they wanted lower state control over the individual.” The polls show Arab masses now have expectations from their leaders and governments. “Assuming that these are a representative sample then it shows that the desire for reform in the Arab world continues to gain steam” said Teitelbaum. “People realize that these so-called reforms such as municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, multi-party presidential elections in Egypt or women getting the right to vote in Kuwait are window dressing and don’t represent real change.” Not long ago Arabs put their leaders on pedestals. But those days have changed, said Wayne White, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington, D.C. based think tank. “We’ve all seen the progression of ideologies in Arab society,” said White. “They began with monarchies which produced corrupt dysfunctional governments. Those were driven out of office by socialist pan-Arab regimes, bringing great expectations that were not fulfilled in many ways: failed wars against Israel, inequitable distribution of wealth and failure of many other aspects of state policy and performance. Now you see people interested in something new. There is a genuinely heightened interest in democracy.” But whether the respondents understood democracy as it is understood in the West remains in question. “I think when a lot of [Arabs] think of democracy they think in performance terms: better jobs, prosperity,” said White who worked for years in the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “I think people are often interested in democracy because they associate it with various successful aspects of government and society. But if democracy doesn’t give them that they will look for something else.” Approximately 53% of respondents said they were unhappy with the levels of freedom available in their respective countries, 42% said they were content and 5% had no opinion. However, the desire for more democratic reforms and freedom did not include women. Only 48% of those polled said women should have more equal rights. Respondents’ feelings towards the US, the country which is pushing reforms in their region, was negative. Of those polled, 57% said they distrust the US a lot and 19% said they distrust it a little. “The US is the vanguard of the West and the Arabs distrust the West as a civilization that challenges their values,” explained Teitelbaum of the Dayan Center. “The Arabs also believe the US doesn’t support the Palestinian cause and they perceive the US invasion of Iraq as crusader-like.” The poll also tried to judge whether Arabs link a secular state system with democracy. Respondents were also asked if they believed an Islamic state could also sit alongside a Western-style of democracy: 83% said they believed a state could be both Islamic and democratic. Only 9% disagreed. Teitelbaum said these results are unsurprising. “Without defining democracy many Muslims would say that Islam and democracy are compatible. Democracy for them means social justice and equal rights. So Islam in a broad way could cover these things.” The extent which respondents believed Islam should be part of government differed. But only 21% said religion should play no part in the government. “Judging from all the polls, if you do actually achieve a thorough functioning democracy [in Arab countries], you’re probably going to have a government which will be more Islamic, more anti-American and more anti-Israeli,” said White. “And finally as one small aspect in the greater realm of issues you would also probably have a diminished interest in women’s rights.” “For that reason,” he said, “if you are advocating a thorough and successful democracy then you must be aware of the potential perils.”