Democracy and the Arab world

On the basis of the replies, it transpires that the majority of Arab public opinion tends to define democracy in the context of political significance.

Tahrir Square, Cairo, daytime_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Tahrir Square, Cairo, daytime_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Everyone in the various Middle East studies departments has been taught to accept the undisputed thesis, upheld for decades, that the opinion of the Arab citizen does not count. Traditionally, the rulers of Arab countries supplied the means of livelihood for their subjects, who in return waived their political freedom and civil rights.
However, this is no longer the case. In the past few years, the “Arab Spring” has proven, day after day, that Arab public opinion is an inseparable, and in some cases even a crucial factor in the determination of the agendas of the Arab states.
Recently, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies published the results of a survey of Arab public opinion for the years 2012-2013. The survey examined economic, social and political issues, as well as attitudes vis-à-vis democracy, civilian and political participation.
The survey, the most comprehensive to date, was carried out by means of face-to-face interviews, with the participation of 21,350 respondents from all levels of the populace – citizens from 14 Arab countries: Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait and Libya. The survey’s respondents represented 89 percent of the total number of inhabitants in the Arab countries, with a statistical error of 2%–3%. In the present article, we have chosen to concentrate on attitudes vis-à-vis democracy in Arab public opinion, as reflected in the survey.
What is democracy? In this part of the survey, respondents were asked to define “democracy.” The results showed that the respondents’ definitions fell into five main categories: assurance of civilian and political freedom; justice and equality; democratic rule; security and stability; and economic improvement.
On the basis of the replies, it transpires that the majority of Arab public opinion tends to define democracy in the context of political significance; assurance of rights and political freedom, the possession of democratic characteristics, and a regime that provides justice and freedom to its citizens.
In contradistinction, security, stability and economic improvement received only 9% with regard to the definition of democracy.
This meshes well with the fact while there are Arab countries in which the citizen enjoys personal and economic security at a high level, citizens of these countries have few political rights.
Criticism of democracy In this part of the survey, respondents were asked to express their level of agreement to five frequently- made statements critical of democracy: “Economic results are not good under a democratic regime,” “Democratic regimes are rife with controversies,” “Democratic regimes are not good at maintaining public order,” “Democratic regimes are not in line with Islam” and “Arab society is not ready to live under democratic rule.”
The first four statements aroused considerable opposition in most of the respondents. That is, Arab public opinion, in essence, supports the existence of democratic regimes with all that they entail, and does not accept the frequent objections raised in the Arab world. On the other hand, the fifth and last statement has opponents and supporters in almost equal numbers.
This raises a noteworthy point: regardless of whether or not Arab society is ready at this time to live under a democratic regime, one thing is clear – democratic rule is the type of regime preferred by the Arab citizen, as is also clearly demonstrated by the next section.
Is democracy preferable? In this part of the survey, respondents were faced with the following statement: “Democratic regimes, with all their problems, are preferable to other types of regimes.” Most of the respondents (68%) answered in the affirmative.
Freedom and individual rights. The Arab citizen considers freedom and the individual rights to be of great importance. “Freedom and the rights of the individual” was divided in the survey into eight parameters: “freedom of the press,” “freedom of expression,” “the right to sue the government and its institutions,” “the principle of periodical free and fair elections,” “honoring the right of the successful party/parties to form a government,” “freedom to join political parties,” “freedom to join organizations and unions,” and “freedom to demonstrate and strike in a peaceful manner.”
About 85% of the Arab public opinion holders ascribe utmost importance to the existence and maintenance of these parameters.
Five forms of governance In this part of the survey, respondents were asked to submit their opinion vis-à-vis five different forms of governance: “democracy,” “Islamic party rule,” “authoritarian regime,” "rule of Islamic law” and “non-religious party rule.”
The majority of the Arab public (71%) supports democratic rule over all other types of political rule, while the authoritarian type of rule gained the lowest support (22%). It should be mentioned however, that most of the citizens of Arab countries were only familiar with the authoritarian type of rule, until the Arab Spring.
Conditions of democracy In this part of the survey, respondents were asked to evaluate to what extent democracy actually exists in their countries (according to the eight parameters presented in the section dealing with freedom and individual rights).
The average of the eight parameters that makes up the degree of freedom and individual rights stands at about 59%. This finding indicates a certain satisfaction with individual rights in the Arab world.
Degree of democracy Finally, respondents were asked to grade the degree of democracy that existed in their country, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represents a lack of democracy while 10 represents a full democracy. The average evaluation of the state of democracy in the Arab world stands at 5.
In summary, the average Arab citizen understands democracy more as the assurance of freedom and of civil and political rights, and less in its meaning of security, stability and economic improvement. Arab public opinion, in the main, wants democratic rule and views such governments, with all of their limitations, as the preferred option.
Almost three years after the eruption of the Arab Spring, and the unceasing ups and downs of the Arab street, the Arab citizen knows that the path to achievement of this goal is still, seemingly, a long one. One thing is clear: the opinion of the Arab citizenry does count.
Shlomi Yass holds an MA in Government Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security and is an intern at the Military and Strategic Affairs Program, INSS. Yuval Dagan is a lecturer of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University.