What do Arabs Want?

Mansoor Moaddel

CAIRO – The self-immolation a year ago of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi triggered a wave of popular protests that spread across the Arab world, forcing out dictators in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, too, seems near the end of his rule.

Together, these movements for change have come to be known as the Arab Spring. But what values are driving these movements, and what kind of change do their adherents want? A series of surveys in the Arab world last summer highlights some significant shifts in public opinion.

In surveys, 84% of Egyptians and 66% of Lebanese regarded democracy and economic prosperity as the Arab Spring’s goal. In both countries, only about 9% believed that these movements aimed to establish an Islamic government.

For Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, where trend data are available, the Arab Spring reflected a significant shift in people’s values concerning national identity. In 2001, only 8% of Egyptians defined themselves as Egyptians above all, while 81% defined themselves as Muslims. In 2007, the results were roughly the same.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, however, these numbers changed dramatically: those defining themselves as Egyptians rose to 50%, 2% more than those who defined themselves as Muslims. Among Iraqis, primary self-identification in national terms jumped from 23% of respondents in 2004 to 57% in 2011. Among Saudis, the figure jumped from 17% in 2003 to 46% in 2011, while the share of those claiming a primary Muslim identity dropped from 75% to 44%.

There has also been a shift toward secular politics and weakening support for sharia (Islamic religious law). Among Iraqis, the percentage of those who agreed that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated increased from 50% in 2004 to almost 70% in 2011. Similar data are not available for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but both countries show a decline in support for sharia. In Egypt, those considering it “very important” for government to implement sharia declined from 48% in 2001 to 28% in 2011. For Saudis, the figure fell from 69% in 2003 to 31% in 2011.

Finally, an analysis of a nationally representative sample of 3,500 Egyptian adults, who rated their participation in the anti-Mubarak movement, showed that participants were more likely to be younger single males with higher socioeconomic status, users of the Internet, newspaper readers, urban residents, and believers in modern values and free will. They did not mind having Americans, British, or French as neighbors. Religiosity did not predict participation, while religious intolerance reduced participation.

These figures seem at odds with the results of Egypt’s recent parliamentary election, in which the Muslim Brothers and the Salafi fundamentalists together gained about 65% of the popular vote. It remains true that religion is an important factor for Egyptian voters, as 66% of those surveyed “strongly agree” or “agree” that it would be better if people with strong religious belief held public office; and 57% consider a government’s implementation of sharia “very important” or “important.” Nonetheless, nationalism trumps religion. Fully 78% agreed with the statement that it would be better if more people with a strong commitment to national interests rather than with strong religious views held public office.

How, then, to explain the inconsistency between the survey data and Egypt’s election results? First, the fundamentalists benefited from years of political organizing and activism, and thus were better able to mobilize their supporters, whereas the liberals, who led the uprising against the former regime, lacked nationwide organization and had little time to translate their newly acquired political capital into votes.

Second, the liberals’ priorities were misplaced. Instead of pushing their agenda forward among Egyptians, they focused on the wrong enemy, spending invaluable time organizing rallies against the army.

Finally, the election outcome is not as bad as it appears. Liberalism has been under continuous attack for decades from religious extremists and religious institutions, and liberal organizations were stifled by oppressive rules. If the Mubarak regime had fallen under the banner of political Islam, Muslim fundamentalists would have been in a much better position to advance more exclusivist claims over the revolution and the country.

But it was the liberals who delivered Egypt from authoritarianism. This, in turn, brought legitimacy to liberalism and generated the powerful feeling of nationalist awareness among Egyptians. As a result, support for sharia declined and national identity soared. Insofar as political discourse is focused on national rebuilding and freedom, Islamic fundamentalists, in Egypt and elsewhere, will face an uphill battle.

Mansour Moaddel is Professor of Sociology at Eastern Michigan University, and has been the principle investigator of several cross-national values surveys carried out in the Middle East between 2001 and 2011.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 12:36 am

    These surveys point to the fact that people were getting frustrated with religion for it did not make ends meet. They were craving for bread and butter and a prosperous economy to survive and to live a comfortable life. In order to earn a living, they needed to identify themselves as citizens of a certain country. It was through their belonging to that certain country that they could obtain their entitlement of a job, state welfare benefits, etc.

  2. #2 by waterfrontcoolie on Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 7:14 am

    If Faith is only between the Creator and his Creatures instead of being hijacked by wanna-be politicians, we all can have a peaceful world. Of course we have only one Mother Teresa during the last 20 th Century; that is how difficult for the human race to get a sincere worker of the Creator! In spite of all the missionary works, the preachers as human have always put their interests above others’ [ except Mother Teresa]. To have an environment to happily engage only things of interest to you, you may have to ‘fight’ for it; that is all about ” Arab Spring”. In this world, the basic struggle between the Governor and the governed has been perpetual and we owe it to ourselves to make sure that we deserve the kind of environment we wanted!

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 8:17 am

    These political developments say something: secular but corrupt Shah Iranian regime supported by US arms, revolted against by liberals/democrats had their democratic revolution hijacked by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamists. Today they threaten to seal off the Strait of Hormuz, to wreak havoc in oil markets. Arab Spring’s demonstrations for Western-style freedoms and pluralism In Tunisia and Egypt that evicted corrupt leaders have in their post-revolutionary elections voted and resulted in Islamist parties coming to power. In Libya, Islamist militias now dominate Tripoli. In Yemen and Syria – still fighting- find Islamists waiting to take power.

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 8:20 am

    Even where there’s no revolt in places comparatively stable and “liberal secular” to extreme like post Ataturk’s Turkey, ecep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist party (Justice and Development Party or AKP) won power and now rules. Only in Indonesia and Malaysia Islamic parties have not won to rule yet though Indonesian Islamist PKS Justice Party is resurgent on the rise after 1999 and 2004 elections, and in Malaysia PAS after 308, with PAS’s Hassan Ali suggesting PAS’s HAdi should be premier if Anwar were incarcerated in sodomy II trial. What does that suggest? That Islamists are politically better organized politically to hijack liberal democrat’s agenda, speak a simpler language appealing to emotions of voters when they use corruption as excuse to evict secular regimes and displace them by theocratic govts???

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 10:57 am

    So here’s the supreme irony from recent experience of Arab Spring: liberal democratic initiatives (eg freedom of assembly and demonstrations) to overthrow corrupt (secular) regimes produce theocratic consequences; a revolution’s consequences (establishment of Islamist parties’ political power) need not follow from its causes (to overthrow dictatorship for liberalism/democracy). More interestingly, Islamists are winning (not by starting/sparking or initiating revolutions but by riding along, supporting & taking advantage of them) and post revolution often win fairly in free, open/democratic elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. After coming into power, that’s another story where civil, women’s LBGT rights are abrogated if not subordinated under Islamic norms and values to the extent against. This is the pattern in countries of majority Muslim population, something Malaysians should reflect on.

  6. #6 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 10:57 am

    The reason is not just because Islamists are politically better organized and disciplined. It is definitely not because that they are better democrats! It has something to do with Islamic theology grounded on its tenets of an all encompassing way of life where public cannot be separated from public, government from religion that pervade the majority vote bank’s consciousness and strike the main chord – and provide a very deep and wide emotional channel through which frustrations with poverty exacerbated by anger at endemic corruption of the often secular ruling classes, revolted against, can flow to oust them.

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 7 January 2012 - 10:58 am

    correction – “..where public cannot be separated from private…”

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