Democracy in the Arab World
By Christiaan Duinmaijer -
Part I: People's choice or imposed?
This is the first in a series of three articles concerning democracy in the Arab World. -
In the 90's Francis Fukuyama wrote that liberal democracy would become universal, but nowadays democracy is often declared unfit for the Arab world: imposed by the West and incompatible with the main religion of a region which needs strong leaders for stability. Given the growing chaos in the region, it is tempting to agree with this statement and regret the earlier general euphoria after each toppled Arab dictator. However, it raises the following questions: 'What is the opinion of the Arabs themselves on democracy?', 'What exactly does the Islam say about democracy?' and 'Are Arab countries really more stable under autocratic rule?'
Arabs have many times taken to the streets to make their voices heard on social-economic and political issues. From the bread riots in Algeria in 1988 against the rising prices of basic needs to the You Stink protests in Lebanon in 2015 against the inability of their government to collect and process waste. Not to forget the Arab Spring when people rose up in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria to topple their dictators. These protests and uprisings have often been cast as calls for more democracy, but do the people in the Arab world really want democracy?
The answer to this question depends on whether you ask them about democracy or elections or look at the turn-out during elections. Democracy and elections are associated with each other by most Arabs, but a significant part sees democracy as a vehicle for more social equality, providing basic needs or fighting corruption. All daily concerns for most Arabs, but which have little to do with democracy as a political system. This means that support for democracy doesn't automatically equal support for elections. In the same way, actual participation in elections often doesn't match the level of support for these first two. One thus has to look at all three to correctly assess the support for democracy in the Arab world.
- Election posters for 2010 Iraqi parliamentarian elections in Baghdad. Source: Al Jazeera English
According to polls held across the Middle East and North Africa more Arabs support elections than democracy. In 2013 49.9% thought that democracy was suitable for their country, but 63.2% found a system with elections appropriate for their country. However, among the Arab youth the support for democracy seems to have waned since 2011 due to growing social-economic and security concerns (unemployment, rising costs, terrorism). In 2016 53% of the Arab youth found stability more important than democracy and a year earlier 39% even thought that democracy would never work in the Middle East (36% disagreed). The growing instability and terrorist threat are often seen as proof that democracy doesn't work and only dictatorships can ensure stability in the region. Anecdotal evidence can be found to support this thesis: An Egyptian friend contacted me after the election of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president to tell that 'Egypt is safe again'.
Although to some stability may have become more important than democracy, this does not mean that Arabs accept an autocratic ruler who ignores popular will. Only 13% of the respondents in 2013 accepted this system and 23% if this autocratic rule was based on Islamic law. However, this support pales with the 63.2% support for elections, but only if both Islamist and secular parties can participate. When one of these two groups is excluded from elections (as happened with Islamist parties in Tunisia in the past) the support for elections drops to 10-16%. There seems to be little appetite for dictatorships, Caliphates or secular democracies in the Middle East and North Africa. However, two countries deviate from this general trend: Libya, where each of the above-mentioned political systems was rejected, and Saudi Arabia, where most preferred a state based on Islamic law without elections over systems with elections.
The fact that the most fervent support for democracy can be found in the most unlikely places underlines that one has to be careful with generalisations about the Arab region. While the democratization experiments in Algeria (1991), Iraq (2003) and Palestine (2006) all ended in civil war and chaos, their respondents still strongly supported either elections or democracy and their populations turned out in large numbers for parliamentarian elections over the past 10 years. In their view these countries have also become more democratic since 2011, even though Freedom House ratings for these countries didn't improve in the same period.
Opinion seems to be more important than facts when talking about popular support for democracy and elections. This can also be seen in the Arab Spring countries of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, which did become more free although their respondents did not think so. Also, the support for democracy as well as voter turn-out have significantly dropped recently in Egypt and Libya, hinting at a decreased enthusiasm for democracy. This disappointment could be caused by the different unsolved social-economic and security issues in these countries, which may lead their populations to doubt whether their hard won freedoms were worth the cost. Sharif Al-Shubasha points out in his book 'The future of Egypt after the revolution' that it took France many, often bloody decades to transition from an autocratic monarchy to a democracy, including periods when the monarchy was restored. He thus admonishes his fellow Arabs not to lose heart and continue the long, hard road to democracy.
This admonishment is important because a majority of the populations in the Arab world supports democracy and/or elections, but disappointment and growing concerns about social-economic and security issues may undercut this support. In some countries it already does, but in other countries the support only has grown stronger. The answer to the main question of this article may change in a few years, but for now it seems to be yes to democracy.
1 Arab Barometer 2013, Most important feature of democracy, arabbarometer.org
2 Arab Barometer 2011 & 2013, To what extent do you think democracy is appropriate for your country? & Most appropriate political systems for your country, arabbarometer.org
3 Arab Youth Survey 2010-2016, arabyouthsurvey.com
4 Arab Youth Survey 2016, p. 9 & Arab Youth Survey 2015, p. 25, arabyouthsurvey.com
5 An average turn-out of 74% of the voting-age population in Iraq, 58% in Palestine and 35% in Algeria (55% for presidential elections). Source: IDEA, Voter Turnout 2006-2015, idea.int/vt/; see also note 2
6 Arab Barometer 2011 & 2013, To what extent do you think your country is democratic, arabbarometer.org
7 See notes 2 & 5
8 Sharif al-Shubasha, Mustaqbal Masr ba3d al-thawra (The future of Egypt after the revolution), 2011