Arabs And Democracy: It’s Complicated

Lindsay Benstead takes a second look at poll data from the Arab world showing widespread support for democratic governance:

According to polls from 2006 to 2008, at least 80 percent of residents in Yemen, the Palestinian territories, Algeria and Jordan agreed or strongly agreed that, “Democracy may have its problems, but it is the best form of government.” This figure exceeded 90 percent in Morocco and Lebanon.

Yet, in a recent article published in “Democratization,” I revisited these Arab Barometer data and found that support for democracy is not as widespread as received wisdom suggests. I found that 27 percent of citizens of six countries surveyed by the Arab Barometer believed that democracy is best but unsuitable for their country. The reasons citizens saw democracy as unsuitable stem not from religion or economic modernization – the focus of many studies of Arab public opinion – but from concerns about economic problems and political instability that could accompany free elections.

Why this matters:

First, scholars have long suggested that public support for democracy is a key driver of democratization. So, it is important for the long-term development of democracy that citizens have confidence in democracy as the best way to achieve a better life. Second, the conditions that appear to threaten public confidence in democracy in the Arab world – instability, violence and upheaval – are an unfortunate byproduct of the transitions taking place in the region. And, this appears to be hampering citizen confidence in democracy.

On a related subject, Steven Cook puzzles over the Egyptian “liberals” who now back the coup government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi:

We have all come to believe in the alleged axiom of Egyptian politics: Faced with a choice between democratically elected Islamists and the authoritarianism of the military, the liberals will choose the officers, revealing themselves to be not so liberal after all. That seems self-evident, but liberal supporters of the post-July 2013 political process argue that the coup and their support for it were actually quintessentially liberal. To them, the military’s intervention precluded Egypt’s slide into a new authoritarianism of a particular religious bent from which there could be no hope for the survival of liberalism. These folks also make the case that their (mostly Western) critics mistakenly fuse liberal principles and democracy, failing to recognize that democracy can bring about both its own demise as well as that of liberalism.

Moreover, the first concern of many of those Egyptian intellectuals who opposed Mubarak but support Sisi is preserving and advancing liberal ideals, which is more important—for now—than the ballot box. It’s an interesting and informed argument, steeped as it is in John Locke. Yet the argument seems like a leap of faith. It is hard to imagine that as Egypt’s authorities go about re-engineering the political institutions of the state to ensure that something like the January 25 uprising never happens again that they are simultaneously creating an environment where liberalism can not only be sustained, but also thrive.