This event is co-sponsored by the Project on Middle East Democracy, U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP), the Arab Barometer, the Arab Reform Initiative, and the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS).


Friday, October 31, 2014
10:00 am – 12:00 pm
U.S. Institute of Peace
2301 Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC

The Arab uprisings were a vivid demonstration of the importance of public opinion in the Middle East. Frustrated by poor governance and the lack of economic opportunity, citizens demonstrated in mass protests on the streets, and online, throughout the region. As autocrats fell, instability and extremism rose. Although democracy appears to be succeeding in Tunisia, in most of the Arab Spring countries the future is far from secure.

To learn how citizens in these countries view government, religion and economic opportunities, please join the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP), the Arab Barometer, the Arab Reform Initiative, the Project on Middle East Democracy, and the Project on Middle East Political Science for discussion on how publics view the situations in their respective countries. The event will highlight new findings from the third wave of surveys (late 2012-2014) of the Arab Barometer across 12 Arab countries including Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, and more.

Featured Speakers:

Amaney Jamal

Edward S. Sanford Professor of Politics, Princeton University
Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Project on Middle East Democracy

Michael Robbins

Project Director of the Arab Barometer
Princeton University and the University of Michigan

Khalil Shikaki

Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research
Senior Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University

Mark Tessler

Samuel J. Eldersveld Professor of Political Science
University of Michigan

Steve Riskin

Senior Program Officer for Grants, U.S. Institute of Peace

Tessler spoke first to introduce the Arab Barometer project and to provide information on attitudes towards political Islam among ordinary citizens in the MENA region. The data presented was based on two waves of surveys led by the Arab Barometer, one in 2011 (second wave) and one over the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2014 (third wave). Nine countries were part of the last two waves of surveys: Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, South Sudan and Iraq. Opinions on political Islam were studied through three main questions: (1) Is your country better off with religious leaders in office? (2) Should religion influence politics? and (3) Should political life be separate from religion? Tessler presented the following findings: the majority of respondents in the region think Islam should not play a role in political life; and as a whole (aggregate of the nine countries), there is not a significant difference between the two waves. However, there were significant time-based changes for Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq. In Egypt, support for political Islam significantly dropped between the second and third wave. In Tunisia, there is less support overall to begin with; however, the same numbers of people agree/strongly agree and the same disagree/strongly disagree in 2011 and 2013. However, findings show an increase in polarization, as in there are more people who strongly agree or strongly disagree in 2013 than 2011. In other words, the Tunisian people did not switch positions, but rather felt more strongly about it. In short, whereas Egypt witnessed a drop in popular support for political Islam, Tunisia witnessed polarization on the subject. Iraq, on the other hand, experienced a change in how sectarian communities viewed political Islam: Sunnis became more supportive, whereas Shia and Sunni Kurds became less supportive.

Shakiki spoke next, focusing on the question of why more people now think that democracy is not as appropriate for their country. Most countries’ scores on democratic practices improved slightly. The only area which has not particularly improved is the rule of law. Regarding public opinion, Shakiki stated that in theory, people think democracy is great, however many think it is “not appropriate for their country.” This is particularly the case for Tunisia and Egypt. One of the main indicators of this is the fact that the people perceive that insecurity and instability has increased with democratization. Shakiki also pointed out decline in living conditions. In short, decline in “democracy appropriateness” is explained by a decline in security, economy and in support for political Islam.

Robbins presented the changes in a number of indicators between 2011 and 2013, in three groups of countries: those with leadership change (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen), those with no leadership change (Morocco, Kuwait, Algeria, Jordan) and other unique cases (Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Sudan). Robbins outlined five takeaways: (1) the context matters, (2) there is convergence in the four “change” countries, with a decline in police ratings, worsening of basic services and less confidence in the belief that states are capable of undertaking reform, (3) decline in perceived capacity of the state, and (4) concerns leading to the Arab Spring are still an issue. More specifically, findings show that there is a dramatic decline in Egypt and Tunisia regarding economic optimism; “change countries” rate their governments low; “change countries” rate their governments poorly in their ability to provide health services; freedom to criticize is however rated higher in “change countries”; freedom to join political parties is rated consistently for all groups; and governments’ efforts to promote reforms (which was the main demand of the Arab Spring) is rated lower in “change countries” than “no change” countries. In short, citizens in “change countries” are disappointed by the results of the Arab Spring, view their states as too weak, and continue to have high expectations.

Finally, Jamal spoke of the changes in social justice since the Arab Spring. The key takeaways of the survey’s findings are: the economy is the dominant concern of citizens and in particular in Tunisia and Egypt; corruption and wasta are still endemic; many citizens believe they can influence their government, in particular in Tunisia and Egypt; few are satisfied with the state of human rights in their country; many believe that international factors are an impediment to reform, though the survey did not specify whether these were Western, regional, or other actors; many youth and protesters want to emigrate; and few define democracy as political equality. To conclude, social justice is perceived in these countries as “bread (stance against poverty), freedom (opportunity, respect and rights) and dignity (economic and political).”

During the Q&A session, the panelists came back to the notion of democracy and what democracy means to people in the region. They acknowledge it is a generic term, which is not often met with a nuanced understanding. However, one important consistent dimension of democracy is “accountability.” They also underlined that to citizens, the problem is not with democracy itself but with democratic transition and the belief that it is “not for us.”