Western elites skeptical Arab Spring will bring democracy

Poll shows most opinion-makers believe that Arabs aspire to democracy, but won’t get it; investment climate will become less favorable.

Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square Cairo 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square Cairo 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
Opinion leaders in the US and Europe believe the mass protests of the Arab Spring are animated by a genuine desire for democracy and freedom, but they are skeptical about their prospects being achieved, according to an unusual poll that surveyed the view of leading figures in government, the media, law academia and non-government organizations.
About three quarters of the 343 opinion leaders surveyed said that anti-government protestors were motivated by “democratic aspirations” rather than “religious influence,” and shared the same democratic aspiration of other people around the world. But asked whether they regarded the revolutions risk being “captured by the familiar forces of authoritarianism,” some 56 percent said they agreed strongly or somewhat.
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The poll, taken by APCO Insight and released on Tuesday, comes as the US and Europe struggle to cast a coherent policy toward the upheavals in the Middle East that have struck both allies, like former Egyptian president Husni Mubarak, and enemies like Syrian leader Bashar Assad. A key element in crafting a new policy is the level of confidence leaders have that the turmoil will lead to freer, more prosperous and more pro-Western societies.
US President Barack Obama, who has expressed optimism about the outcome of the Arab Spring, is scheduled to make a major policy address on Thursday. Reports have said that he will offer new ideas about US policy toward the region and unveil plans for stepped-up aid. The Group of Eight countries, which encompasses the world’s biggest economies, is expected to follow suit with its own aid package.
Egypt, the biggest non-oil economy of the region, is seeking aid to tide it over a period of widening budget deficits. In the longer term, it is counting on an influx of foreign investment to re-start its economy. But the survey of opinion leaders, who were from North America and Europe, found that most of the respondents expressed pessimism about the outlook for foreign investment across the Middle East.
A plurality of 47% said the “climate for direct foreign investment” in the region would be less favorable than in the past, with the negative views highest among what APCO called “elite” senior officials. The poll was taken April 28-May 13.
Slightly more than 70% of the opinion leaders polled by APCO said Arab governments would be more democratic in the wake of the revolutions, but when asked what specific achievements they foresaw coming, they were more doubtful.
While 60% saw the turmoil as acting to “accelerate economic and social development,” fewer expected women to enjoy any gains (54%), for rule of law to be more widely respected (52%) or that less violent, more tolerant societies would emerge (44%), the APCO survey found.
“It is clear that while there may be concern about who emerges in power, characterizing events as an indictment of Arab society is not persuasive,” Ma’moon Sbeih, managing director of APCO’s Arab Region office in Dubai, said.
The view of Western leaders stands in contrast to how the Arab world views the revolutions, according to a second poll, conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, and released on Tuesday.
It found that the Arab public is optimistic about the impact of the revolutions. Wide majorities in Jordan (73%), the Palestinian territories (73%) and Lebanon (71%) expressed the view that they will lead to more democracy in the Middle East.
Egyptians are also upbeat. Asked specifically, a majority of Egyptians (57%) said they are optimistic about the future of their country, although only 41% said it is very likely that elections slated for this autumn will be free and fair.
As he seeks to recast US Middle East policy, Obama has an uphill battle to fight for Arab public opinion. The Pew survey, taken March 21-April 26, found that the US is looked upon less favorably now than in 2009 in most of the Arab world while confidence in Obama has fallen. In the five Mideast countries included in the poll, unfavorable views of the US ranged from a low of 49% in Lebanon to a high of 84% in Jordan.
“Many of the concerns that have driven animosity toward the US in recent years are still present – a perception that the US acts unilaterally, opposition to the war on terror and fears of America as a military threat,” Pew said in a report. “The Arab Spring has not led to a change in America’s image.”