Lessons from the Arab Barometer to avoid a gathering storm
Though memories of the the so-called Arab Spring nearly eight years ago are fading, we should remind ourselves that most of the places where it happened were left with a legacy of destruction and oppression — and that the root causes that sparked those popular uprisings still prevail.
Libya, Syria and Yemen, for example, are no better off now than they were when their people took to the streets; in fact, in most aspects they are in a worse state.
It is simplistic to attribute the uprisings solely to a strong desire to topple dictatorships and replace them with democratically elected governments. Political marginalization and regime repression were obviously major motivations for people to take to the streets and risk their lives in an attempt to bring about change. However, socioeconomic rights and social justice were central to the growing frustrations of many millions of Arabs across the region. All of the evidence collected by surveys and researchers reveals that none of these sources of widespread malaise have been addressed satisfactorily — and in some cases there has been an alarming regression.
It is with this in mind that one should look at the findings of the Arab Barometer, one of the most impressive and in-depth attempts to survey the mood of people in the Middle East and North Africa region. The massive survey of 25,000 people was conducted for BBC News Arabic by the Arab Barometer research network in 10 countries and the Palestinian territories between late 2018 and spring 2019. It explored a number of issues, including good (or bad) governance, women’s rights, security, sexuality, migration and religion. Of course, any such effort to summarize the views and feelings of 300 million Arabs across such a diverse, complex and conflict-torn region on such a wide range of issues might inevitably be tempered by generalizations, but still there is much sensitivity to variations between countries.
Since the Arab Barometer surveys began, more than a decade ago, improvements across the region, where they have taken place at all, have been mainly incremental. One area from which it is possible to take some encouragement, for example, is the gradual and positive change in attitudes towards gender equality. The latest survey found that most people in the region supported the right of a woman to become prime minister or president. The exception was Algeria, where fewer than half of those questioned believed a woman to be a suitable head of state. In all other countries surveyed, more than 50 per cent of people surveyed supported female leaders.
At the same time, however, a majority of men and women in all of the countries, with the exception of Morocco, said that in domestic life the husband should always have the final say in family decisions.
Rather than a revolution, the MENA region needs constant, rapid evolution, with a clear direction that seriously takes into account the concerns raised by the Arab Barometer. Without such genuine and comprehensive evolution, at least some of the countries surveyed might once more face violence and even revolution.
This is not an easy contradiction to reconcile or comprehend. More than anything else, it demonstrates that women are still not empowered when it comes to the decisions that actually affect their daily lives, but perhaps offers some hope that female leadership at the top might eventually help them to feel increasingly confident about making decisions closer to home.
Though the full report on the survey has not been published yet, trends of growing dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs have been revealed. There are some very disturbing findings related to the failure of the Arab Spring to bring about the anticipated democratic changes, according to Dr. Amaney Jamal, the cofounder and principal investigator of Arab Barometer, who said: “Citizens now fear that democracy might inherently cause more instability…although people’s commitment to freedom and liberty is still very strong.”
This might be disappointing but it is not necessarily a reason to despair. It takes more than an uprising or even free elections to build a functioning democracy. Moreover, there is no single, universal model for democracy, and nor should there be. The Arab world can, and should, seek its own version, as long as there is adherence to established democratic values and principles. At the heart of democracy are individual liberties and freedoms that are granted to every citizen without exception: the rule of law; adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including freedom of expression and assembly; and the separation of powers. The particular applications and mechanisms for achieving these goals could well vary from the western model.
Doubts over the democratic process might also explain one other worrying finding from the Arab Barometer; a widespread inclination, especially among young people, to emigrate. In countries such as Jordan, Morocco, Yemen and Lebanon, 40 per cent of those surveyed said they are contemplating leaving. In Sudan 60 percent said they see no future in staying in their country.
The wish to leave the region, while democracy fails to materialize, might be also connected to another factor: the slow decline in religiosity. This is especially evident among those under the age of 30, of whom 18 percent identified as being non-religious. Among the more liberal minded, this decision to distance themselves from religion, and the desire to leave their countries, might be linked to the survey’s finding that in many countries the level of tolerance for honor killings is higher than tolerance of homosexuality, which is low in any case.
Pressure on governments in the MENA region to reform would no doubt increase if the disaffected grow in numbers, consisting mainly of the young. In weather forecasting, when barometers indicate high pressure, the forecast is usually for bright, sunny days, while low pressure brings bleak and gloomy conditions. In politics, the opposite applies. High pressure is a sign of the gathering clouds of unrest and upheaval, and there are many of these across the Middle East and North Africa.
But rather than a revolution, the region needs constant, rapid evolution, with a clear direction that seriously takes into account the concerns raised by the Arab Barometer. Without such genuine and comprehensive evolution, at least some of the countries surveyed might once more face violence and even revolution.
Revolution, as the writer Hisham Matar has asserted, “is not a painless march to the gates of freedom and justice. It is a struggle between rage and hope, between the temptation to destroy and the desire to build.”
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg