Did the Arab Spring Experience Change Political System Preferences? No and Yes, According to Arab Barometer Opinion Surveys

This blog is written by Dr. Mark Tessler (University of Michigan)

Did the turbulent period from early 2011 to late 2013 change the thinking of ordinary men and women in the Arab world about the way their countries should be governed? The uprisings of this period did not bring the smooth transitions to democracy sought by protesters. Thus, given the difficulties and disturbing violence that characterized these years in many countries, it might be expected that Arab publics would lose faith in democracy, or at least worry that democratic political systems are not effective at maintaining order and stability.Dr. Mark Tessler

The events of this period may also have changed people’s thinking about the role that Islam should play in government and political affairs. Elections in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 and 2012 brought Islamists to power. And while some of their votes came from individuals who favor an Islamist social and political agenda, much of their support, roughly half according to opinion polls, came from men and women who were motivated by the hope that Islamist governments would be more committed than previous regimes to the welfare of ordinary citizens. But in each case the government disappointed the public and collapsed in 2013 amidst renewed protests and demands for a change in political direction.

Public opinion data from the Arab Barometer Survey Project provide insights about the impact of this difficult period on the political system preferences of ordinary citizens, particularly their views about democracy and about political Islam. Nationally-representative political attitude surveys were carried out by Arab Barometer teams in nine countries in late 2010 and the first part of 2011, as the Arab spring was taking shape, and then replicated in late 2012 and during 2013. The nine countries are Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen.

Taking all nine countries together, 83 percent of those interviewed in the first wave of surveys agreed or agreed strongly that democracy, whatever its limitations, is the best political system. And 80 percent expressed this view in the second wave of surveys, suggesting that support for democracy, at least in the aggregate, had not significantly diminished. The level of aggregate support for political Islam remained about the same as well, with 40 percent agreeing in the first wave and 36 percent agreeing in the second wave that religious leaders should have influence over government decisions.

Notwithstanding these aggregate continuities, there were important attitudinal shifts in several countries, as shown in the accompanying table. The table considers in combination the questions about democracy and political Islam mentioned above and presents the distribution of combined responses for each of the nine coTessler's paperuntries. This yields the following four political system preference categories: support for both democracy and political Islam, support for democracy but not political Islam, support for political Islam but not democracy, and support for neither democracy nor political Islam. Each category references a different political formula.

Although the table shows some instructive differences in political system preferences across the nine countries, country-specific similarities and differences between the first and second surveys are of particular note. Significantly, the table shows that the largest changes over this time period, particularly a decline in support for democracy combined with support for political Islam, occurred the three countries – Egypt, Iraq and Yemen – that have had the most problematic and, in two cases, violence-ridden transitions.

These findings indicate, first, that political attitudes in general, and support for political Islam in particular, did change in the countries that have had difficult or even aborted transitions. They also indicate, second, that these difficulties did not have much of an impact on the political views of individuals who did not live through these problems but rather witnessed them from the distance of neighboring Arab countries.

Watch our interview with Dr. Mark Tessler

Dr. Mark Tessler’s paper was presented at the ERF Workshop “The Pulse of the Arab Streets“.

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