That’s what Arab Barometer finds in its latest wave of surveys across 10 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
A decade after the Arab Spring, what do the citizens of Arab nations think about democracy? In its 2021-2022 public opinion survey across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Arab Barometer finds that they’re worried that democracy can’t deliver either good politics or stable and healthy economies.
At the same time, democracy remains the form of government they would prefer.
The Arab Barometer is the premier academic public opinion survey in MENA, comparable to other regional counterparts such as Afrobarometer and the AmericasBarometer in its scope and methods.
A decade ago, at the start of the Arab Spring, we found the that citizens across the region overwhelmingly favored democracy.
At the same time, fewer than half in all 10 countries surveyed in the project’s second wave worried that democracy might bring economic weakness, indecisiveness and instability.
n the decade that followed, these views began to change, including in countries that experienced democratic openings.
In Tunisia, for example, citizens began to change their minds about democracy.
Shortly after the Jasmine Revolution, fewer than 1 in 5 citizens believed that instability (17 percent), indecision (19 percent) and weak economic performance (17 percent) were linked with democracy.
After two years of weak democratic governments, the percentage of Tunisians who held this view had more than doubled for all three measures: instability, 42 percent; indecision, 50 percent; and weak economy, 35 percent.
Over the next decade, this perception grew, with at least two-thirds of Tunisians linking each problem with democratic governance.
Arab Barometer has conducted nearly 23,000 face-to-face interviews of citizens age 18 and above across 10 countries to date as part of its seventh wave.
Each of these personal interviews are conducted in the respondent’s residence on a variety of topics, including economic, political, religious and political issues.
Each country survey has a margin of error of approximately plus or minus two percentage points.
Tunisia was not alone in its opinion shift. In seven of nine countries where we asked these questions, half or more now agree that democracy is linked with some of these shortcomings.
That’s increased significantly in many countries since our last wave of interviews in 2018-2019. This shift in the region is consistent with the global trend of growing discontent with democracy.
At the same time, as our new report details, in all 10 countries we surveyed, majorities still agree that despite its problems, democracy remains the best system of governance.
Moreover, in all but two of the 10, majorities go even further to say that not only is democracy the best system but the only viable system of governance.
In other words, MENA citizens have become clear-eyed about democracy’s shortcomings — seeing it as the best system, or even the only viable system — while understanding that it is not perfect.
That’s true for citizens living in countries that previously experienced democratic openings and those that have been authoritarian over the past decade.
l, these findings offer some hope for democracy’s future in the region. Research finds that democracy takes hold only when all key pillars of society, including the public at large, believe there to be no better option. Citizens across MENA no longer harbor unrealistic expectations that a political transition to democracy will solve all problems in their societies — a major shift from just a decade ago. And yet they remain committed to it as their goal.
Why would Arabs want democracy if it means unemployment, poverty, insecurity and corruption?
A recent study by Princeton University’s Arab Barometer network finds that the majority of Arabs believe democracy, as a system of government, has failed to meet their expectations, leading many to think it is not the right formula for their social ills.
The study, in which 23,000 individuals across ten countries were asked different questions about economies, politics, cost of living and freedoms, is quite comprehensive in scope and reach.
Those surveyed are mainly people living in the Middle East and North African countries, where some form of democracy has been in place for the last few years. Elections were regularly organised or promised as a way forward.
Many Arab countries were not included in the study but it still represents widely shared beliefs, indicative of the way people think.
Strikingly, most respondents said they prefer strong leaders who can lead them into better economic conditions even if that meant bending “the rules” to get things done. This comes a decade after the so called “Arab Spring”, which was supposed to have “liberated” the masses, giving them the power to decide their future.
Tunisia is always a good example to consider since it was the birthplace of the “Spring” – turned winter long before it was expected, as 77 per cent of Tunisian respondents expressed preference for strong leaders over democracy itself. Why?
The simple answer is that democracy has failed to deliver in almost all countries visited by the “Arab Spring”, except Iraq, where democracy was spoon-fed into the population through a blatant American invasion in 2003.
The same Tunisians, who forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out in January 2011, elected President Kais Saied in 2019 giving up on what they were told by democracy advocates was their best chance of charting their future.
They saw Mr. Saied, a complete outsider, as a saviour; after the euphoria of victory in 2011 gave way to the country’s most turbulent years in which their elected Parliament became anything but a respected chamber where elected representatives act responsibly.
Furthermore, President Saied, in 2021, was given carte blanche when he took over power last July, later dissolving the Parliament and now offering Tunisians his own constitution, replacing the democratically written and proven Constitution of 2014.
He did that on the back of massive public support across the country simply because the people liked what he was doing and saw his “extraordinary measures” as their best chance to overhaul the “democratic” corrupt system that took over Tunisia over the last eight years.
In Tunisia’s eastern neighbour, Libya, another 77 per cent of those surveyed said they prefer a strong leader over the shallow democratic process that kept failing them since they first went to the polls in 2012.
Unlike Tunisians, Libyans had to learn the lesson the hardest of ways as their country was invaded in 2011, when their version of the “Arab Spring” turned sour from the start.
Today they compare life to how it was before 2011 under. The man was demonised and made to look as the only hurdle between Libyans and their flourishing paradise, if only he is gone. When he was toppled they ended up less secure, disenchanted and poorer, despite their country being rich as a top oil producer.
Is this because Libyans and Tunisians and, indeed, the wider Arabs, are immune to democracy as practiced by other nations in Europe, for example? Some Western commentators certainly think so, but this could not be further from the truth.
The fact is very simple: the democracy advocated across the MENA region has either been without foundations, or became corrupt and paralysed from the start.
This is manifested in Lebanon, once considered the oasis of democracy where elections have been part of life for the most part of the country’s 79 years as an independent state.
In Lebanon, which is on the brink of collapse for the last three years, 73 per cent of Lebanese respondents to the study, when it comes to economics, said they prefer a strong leader who can make things happen, regardless of how.
According to the World Bank, Lebanon is going through the “most severe” economic crisis in the world since the mid-19th Century.
If anything, the study should not be taken to mean Arabs reject democracy because their way of life, Islamic culture and heritage are incompatible with the modern world and are counter to democratic practices.
In fact, the findings of the study should be seen within the complete process of democratic transformation within the region. Democracy as a way of life and system of government is an educational process where co-existence and tolerance of differences takes root through decades of practice.
This has not been the case in our region, and many Western powers that have dominated the area have not been honest in supporting democratic changes. When Tunisians revolted against Ben Ali, France and the United States attempted to save him.
he same happened in Egypt during the Egyptian revolution in 2011. The case of Libya was the worst example of Western double standards and hypocrisy, leading many Libyans to believe their salvation comes only through military invasion, just as was the case in Iraq in 2003.
When Libya plunged into chaos after Gaddafi and Iraq disintegrated after Saddam Hussein, Westerners blamed the people, not themselves, for the outcome.
This is not an anti-colonial rhetoric but a fact of political and social change that went bad, in which individual nations are partly to blame. Democracy failed in Iraq, Tunisia, Libya and many other Arab countries simply because it was never allowed to take root.
Across the region, including in “old” regional democracies like Lebanon, democratic practices never run their natural course of evolution, like in France or the United Kingdom. The West, for example, publically advocates for Arab democracy, but only if it produces the desired outcome.
Manifestation of this policy came when the West rejected Hamas’s 2006 election win, just because Israel did not like it. The same happened in Lebanon in later years. Today Libya is held hostage to the very militias the West helped to topple Gaddafi, but when they started strangling the country the West simply left the issue to its regional proxies, while blaming Libyans themselves. By the way, the current study found 62 per cent of Palestinians want a stronger leader, regardless of how he governs them.