A Barometer for Arab Democracy

Arab public opinion is increasingly important following the Arab uprising, the empowerment of public forces, the more open online and traditional media, and the contentious political transitions in some countries.  I've recently discussed the findings of opinion surveys in Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt, as well as Pew's extraordinary survey of global Muslim attitudes.  Now I'd like to point out some of the key findings of the second wave of the Arab Barometer, conducted in seven countries in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of the Arab uprisings.  Mark Tessler, Amaney Jamal and Michael Robbins, the scholars who lead the Arab Barometer project, have just published an article detailing some of its key findings about democracy in the Journal of Democracy.  They show that Arabs continue to strongly support democracy as the best form of government, even as understandings of democracy continue to evolve, while Islamism at the time of the survey seemed to be receding rather than advancing with broad Arab publics.

The Arab Barometer is different from other surveys out there for a few reasons.  First, it's done by academics and for academics, which means there is less attention to the current events of the day (approval of particular governments, views of the United States) and more to the underlying attitudes.  Second, it uses a very careful methodology to the best practices of the field, in contrast to a lot of other surveys in the region done on the cheap or in support of a particular agenda.   Third, all of its data is open access and available to all researchers.   Finally, its battery of questions is explicitly designed to be comparable with the Barometers in Latin America, Africa and Europe.  This strength is also a weakness, of course, for those who want insights into the current mood in these countries more than they do longer-term trends -- these survey results are more useful to highlight change and continuity in public attitudes over time than to answer extremely current ticks in political preferences. 

That said, the findings are quite interesting.   Support for democracy in the abstract remains very high across all the countries surveyed.  But it actually dropped somewhat in several countries in the years between the two waves.  Support for democracy dropped by almost ten points in Lebanon and five points in Jordan, though it remained high in absolute terms everywhere. 

The Barometer found very interesting differences in how Arabs thought about democracy in different countries, however.  It asks a battery of questions about the meaning of democracy, asking respondents to specify whether they understand democracy primarily in political terms (i.e. free and fair elections) or in economic terms (i.e. reducing inequality or provision of services).  There was some evidence that the political understanding of democracy increased in the wake of the Arab uprising:  in Algeria, there was an 11 point increase from the first wave to the second in those identifying political rather than economic dimensions as most important;  in Yemen, where the question was not asked in the 1st wave, 61% identified political dimensions.  But in Egypt, conducted in the summer of 2011 after the revolution, the survey found an overwhelmingly economic view of demcoracy. Only 6% named "free and fair elections" as the most essential characteristic of democracy, while  77% named economic factors such as low inequality, elimination of corruption, or provision of basic necessities to all. 

The survey also found strong support for the notion that "reform should proceed gradually" across most countries, although overall there was a 12 percentage point drop in support for gradual reform between the two waves (from 89.5% to 77.7%).  Algerians seem to have grown particularly impatient; in a survey done after January 2011, support for gradual reform fell from 91.4% to 63.3%.   Significant drops were also seen in Yemen, also carried out after January 2011 (from 87% to 69%), and -- less significantly -- in Jordan (90% to 85%). 

The survey found a huge decline in political interest in Lebanon and Palestine, and overall in 2nd wave almost all countries converged to between 33%-40% on the question of "interest in politics."  But the survey also founda  huge increase in civic engagement from the 1st to the 2nd wave. The most dramatic increase came in Yemen, with 23% increase, but the survey also found a roughly 9% increase in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine. 

The survey's findings on religion broadly accord with the Pew survey that support for Islamist views of politics is receding rather than surging.   Overall, those saying that religion should not influence how people vote in elections went from 67.8% in the 1st wave to 81.2% in the 2nd wave.   There was also a decline in support for the idea that more religious people should hold public office (from 44.6% to 38.5%).  The idea that religion is primarily a private matter gained support, from 53.7% to 65.1%. In Egypt, only 37% said that men of religion should influence government decisions and 87% say they should not influence how citizens vote.  80% said that religion is a private matter, and only 47% said they trusted the Muslim Brotherhood.  Support for the idea that laws should be made in accordance to will of people remained stable (from 62.9% to 64.5%), but there was a slight increase in the belief that laws should be made in accordance with shari'a (from 67.3% to 73.4%).  Actual Muslims living in the Arab world generally do not see a contradiction in these positions; only 30.2% in both waves agreed that democracy and Islam were incompatible.  In short, perhaps there is an upsurge in Islamism in the Arab world, then, but this survey wave did not detect one.

I've written often about the promise and the pitfalls of survey research in the Arab world.   These findings, like all the others, should be seen as snapshots offering only partial visibility into the real attitudes of Arab citizens and how those views matter.  But the Arab Barometer is a particularly well-designed specimen of such research. It should be supplemented with other kinds of data, from voting patterns to social media data to ethnography, but its value should not be dismissed.  

UPDATE:  in response to a question from Twitter, I asked the authors of the Arab Barometer report about the composition of the 30.2% of respondents who considered Islam and democracy incompatible. How many were secularists skeptical about Islam, and how many were Islamists skeptical about democracy?  Michael Robbins, one of the three authors, kindly went back into the data to find out.  Here's what he had to say:  

I ran some crosstabs to compare the response pattern for those who "strongly agree" that religion is a private matter that should be separated from socio-economic life and those who "strongly disagree" with the same item.  The analysis is for Muslims only.  The percentages shown are for those who strongly agree or who agree that democracy and Islam are incompatible.  There is not a consistent pattern across countries.  There are four countries where those with a secular orientation are less likely to believe that Islam and democracy are compatible: Iraq (23.6% difference), Saudi Arabia (14.8%), Jordan (14%), and Yemen (10%) .  There is not a large difference in Sudan (4.2%), Palestine (0.8%), and Egypt (-3.4%) between the two groups.  Only in Algeria (-18.3%) and Tunisia (-6.6%) are those with an Islamist orientation less likely to say that Islam and democracy are not compatible.  (The sample size in Lebanon was too small for analysis using these items.)

Thanks to Michael Robbins for going back to the data in response to the query.  

Marc Lynch

The New Salafi Politics

Few developments associated with the Arab uprisings have generated as much concern of late as the rapid emergence of Salafi movements into the public arena. The performance of al-Nour Party in Egypt's parliamentary elections stunned many observers. Waves of attacks on Sufi shrines in Tunisia and Libya, denunciations of secular citizens, and loud calls for the imposition of sharia have raised fears at home and abroad. The violent protests over the anti-Islam YouTube film, the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the emergence of Salafi-jihadist trends within the Syrian opposition have made these political concerns ever more urgent.

Who are these new Salafi movements? How should we interpret their rise? I am pleased to announce the publication of our new POMEPS Brief, available as a free PDF download, which collects more than a dozen recent ForeignPolicy.com essays on Salafis across the Arab world, including a detailed look at Salafi politics in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The picture that emerges is troubling -- but also unexpectedly reassuring. These well-funded and well-entrenched subcultures will likely continue to thrive in the open, contentious new Arab political realm. But how they will behave, the response they will generate from other political trends and societal sectors, and how they will approach political institutions remains very much in question.

The "troubling part" of their ascent doesn't require a great deal of elaboration. While many Salafis are simply religious individuals comfortable when surrounded by the like-minded, the more assertive of them have advanced a hard-edged, intolerant agenda that has driven a sharp polarization around religion in several Arab countries. Their attacks on movie theaters, Sufi shrines, and Western culture have frightened and angered secular trends in these countries, particularly religious minorities and women who fear for their place in the emerging societies. Attacks on U.S. embassies by Salafi-jihadist groups have frightened and angered the United States, and prompted concerns about a resurgence of al Qaeda. 

But there are also reasons for some optimism. As several of the essays in this collection point out, Salafism is not a unified trend. Its adherents belong to a wide range of movements with very different orientations toward politics, many of which push toward political quiescence and an inward-looking focus on the cohesion of their own communities. Because Salafi subcultures generally lack the kind of disciplined organization that characterizes the Muslim Brotherhood, they struggle to act in any sort of organized fashion. 

Blaming the Arab uprisings for Salafism is misguided. It is not as if these trends did not exist before their eruption into the public realm. Salafi movements were increasingly prominent in Egypt in the years prior to the revolution, with television stations and prominent public faces. Salafi subcultures across the region were fueled by funding streams from the conservative Gulf states. In some countries, such as Egypt, they were also often tacitly (or openly) supported by intelligence services keen to promote competitors to the Muslim Brotherhood and -- to the conspiracy minded -- to drum up communal tensions with attacks on churches or outrageous statements when this served the interests of the ruling regimes. The financial flows from the Gulf show few signs of abating, but it is intriguing to consider the possible impact of a decrease of this latter sort of support from the "deep state" -- or their continuation as a way to undermine and challenge the Brotherhood from within. 

It is easy to understand the alarm over high profile public arguments over outrageously reactionary comments by Salafi figures, but public clashes over issues advanced by the Salafis are also not necessarily a bad sign. It seems better to have these brought out into the public realm than hidden in shadows. It is actually reassuring to see their public advances increasingly beaten back by competing movements, an outraged and controversy-minded press, and calculating politicians. The backlash against the outrageous statements by popular Salafi television preachers reveals as much as their initial comments -- and indeed tells us far more than the bland reassurances of the designated spokesmen for the movements. These public battles reveal the limits of their influence and the real radicalism of some of their ideas relative even to their own societies. They may also sometimes reveal real pools of popular support for their ideas in conservative societies such as Egypt's, which is important to recognize rather than turn away from. 

Open politics challenges the Salafis as much as empowers them. Since its electoral coming out party, Egypt's al-Nour Party has fragmented and faced serious internal tensions. Its decision to approve of an IMF loan on grounds of extreme contingency seems sure to anger the faithful, and suggests that for better or for worse ultimately even these most ideological of Islamists will prove pragmatic in their pursuit of self-interest. They will likely face increasing challenges as their members grow disenchanted with the benefits of the democratic process and perhaps return to demands for greater doctrinal purity. In short, as much as the leaders of these movements may have enjoyed their public profile it also poses severe challenges.

Finally, the Salafi challenge has been forcing Muslim Brotherhood-style groups in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia into open confrontation. Egyptian and Tunisian Salafis have been biting at the heels of the ruling Islamists. In Egypt some Salafis are gearing up to mobilize against a constitutional draft pushed by the Muslim Brotherhood, while Tunisian Salafis are none to happy about Ennahda's decision to drop its heavily promoted "anti-blasphemy" constitutional clause. From their positions of power such Islamists no longer have the luxury of empty posturing or of ignoring real challenges to stability or national interests. While Salafis and Brothers have been tussling over supporters for many years, the stakes have never been higher nor the electoral sorting mechanism more direct. The Muslim Brotherhood can no longer take its Islamic flank for granted, forcing it to shed its carefully calculated ambiguity maintained over decades. 

A recent video of Tunisian Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi meeting with Salafis has been widely taken as a scandal, revealing secret collaboration between the two trends, for instance. But his comments could also be read as a warning to impatient Salafis -- to back off, avoid confrontational moves, and be more patient. It is unclear whether they have any intention of taking this advice.  With a significant proportion of Brothers harboring Salafi sympathies and Salafis moving into the political realm once identified with the Brothers, we can expect those political battles over the Islamic vote to only intensify. Islam may be ever more the coin of public rhetoric in transitional Arab societies, but there is no unified Islamist movement able to take advantage. Indeed, the fragmentation and battling of competing Islamist groups, along with the alarming rhetoric from some of those quarters, which may frighten mainstream voters, should be a blessing for liberal and secular groups, if only they can take advantage. 

The same can be said of the emergence of the Salafi-jihadist groups. While much remains unclear, there appears to be a new al Qaeda strategy focused on building ties with local jihadist movements, including the various Ansar al-Sharia factions. This is clearly a climb-down from the post-9/11 period for al Qaeda Central, and a more localized and disaggregated threat varying widely across arenas. Combined with the magnet of a radicalized Syrian insurgency (see below), it could represent the next adaptation of a resilient, if still very small, jihadist movement. That jihadist movement looks more like the localized campaigns of the 1990s than the exaggerated ambitions of a unified Islamist movement under Salafi-jihadist tutelage imagined in the years after 9/11. We should avoid the temptation to inflate the threat of these disparate movements or to conflate radically different events and trends into a single narrative of Islamist or al Qaeda resurgence.

One crucial difference in these new localized jihadist groups is that whereas before they targeted secular, pro-American leaders such as Mubarak, now their violence and extremism poses a direct threat to the political interests of Islamist leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. From a U.S. perspective, having the Muslim Brotherhood take the lead in combatting Salafi-jihadists on their own turf, for their own interests, would be a major success in the broader campaign against such groups. The Brotherhood also finds itself in the very uncomfortable position of taking a lead role in cracking down on "Islamic extremists." It has not been so long since they were the targets of such repression. This competition is one major reason why it is wrong to conflate all signs of Islamist political success into a narrative of a supposedly resurgent al Qaeda. 

And then, there is Syria. As a recent ICG report made clear, initially marginal Salafi-Jihadist groups have made significant inroads into the Syrian opposition. They appear to have benefited disproportionately from financial and arms flows from the Gulf, and to have adapted many of the military and communication innovations of al Qaeda in Iraq. For the jihadist community it does appear that Syria is the new Iraq, both operationally and as a propaganda frame for advancing a narrative, which had fallen into deep disrepute over the last few years (I'll be writing more on this soon). They will likely continue to bring sectarianism, extremist views, and Iraq-style tactics into Syria regardless of whether or how Western countries intervene, and to enjoy ready access to cash and foreign fighters regardless of whether or how Western countries attempt to control such flows.

In short, the emergence of the Salafi trend into the public life of many Arab countries is an important recent development. But it would be a mistake to exaggerate the unity of the Salafi trend or its place within these transitional societies. They are a vital part of the emerging public landscape. Their participation in electoral politics and public life should be encouraged -- even as their stances should be condemned and their opponents supported in the effort to build tolerant, inclusive Arab societies. A contentious political battle over Islamic symbols will likely continue to be a prominent feature of Arab politics in coming years. Hopefully, the essays in this POMEPS Briefing collection will be a useful guide to the current state of play.