Scholars of public opinion, including Arab Barometer researchers Amaney Jamal, Michael Robbins and Mark Tessler, offer ample evidence of support for democracy in the Arab world. 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.
My research found that 60 percent of citizens strongly support democracy, as indicated by their response to two statements (See Table 3). This group feels that democracy is the best form of government and suitable for the respondents’ own country. Only 7 percent of the region’s citizens reject democracy on both these indicators. Yet, 27 percent regard democracy as the best form of government, but deem it unsuitable at home.
What accounts for these seemingly contradictory views? The answer, it turns out, stems in large part from the respondents’ expectations of what democracy might bring. When citizens worry about economic upheaval, violence or negative cultural ramifications as a result of free elections, they are more likely to reject democracy at home.
Other factors matter, too. Perceptions of poor government performance (including the belief that the government lacks transparency and effectiveness) degrade government legitimacy and lower confidence in democracy’s suitability. Lower levels of economic modernization (such as not following the news or having lower levels of education) matter in Morocco and Yemen.
While religiosity does not affect attitudes toward democracy, sectarian identity does have an effect. Sect appears to matter in accordance with the consequence-based theory – dependent on the unique political conditions and demographic make-up of each country and its relationship to the consequences of free elections – not cultural determinism. In Lebanon, for example, Shiite Muslims are more likely to see democracy as suitable than are Christians. This may be because Christians, who make up an estimated 41 percent of the population, expect to lose from freer elections, while Shiite Muslims could gain more influence. (Shiite Muslims make up about 27 percent of the population, Sunni Muslims 26 percent. Together, Muslims make up a larger proportion of the country than Christians.)
Why should lagging demand for democracy be a concern? 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.
Recently, the Transitional Governance Project, a survey research and party capacity-building project I am a part of with Ellen Lust, Dhafer Malouche, Gamal Soltan and Jakob Wichmann, found declining support for democracy in Libya and Tunisia. In two recent polls conducted in Tunisia, we found that between 2012 and 2014, the proportion of Tunisians agreeing or strongly agreeing that democracy is the best form of government fell from 86 percent to 64 percent.
Interviews I recently conducted in Algeria also suggested declining support for democracy. Citizens expressed concern about instability, which they perceive as growing in Tunisia and Libya. Algerians have experienced their own Black Decade of civil war and incidents of terrorism in recent years, which does little to induce many Algerians to reject their authoritarian regime.
The transitions in the Middle East and North Africa continue, and there are bright spots as Tunisia moves forward in its democratic transition and prepares for parliamentary and presidential elections this fall. But, activists and international actors need to redouble efforts to support the development of fledgling democratic institutions in Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in order to improve stability and economic opportunities and build confidence that democracy really is best.
Lindsay J. Benstead is an assistant professor of political science in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.