The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When it comes to democracy, Egyptians hate the player but Tunisians hate the game

Election workers count ballots at a counting center in Cairo on May 28, 2014.  (Lobna Tarek/El Shorouk via AP)
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Many hoped the protests associated with the Arab uprisings would unleash a democratic wave in the region, sweeping out autocrats who had withheld political voice from generations of Arabs. Yet rather than producing liberalized polities, with the possible exception of Tunisia, the uprisings primarily led to either devastating civil conflict or the resurgence of authoritarian regimes.

How have these events affected how Arab publics think about democracy? Has the nearly universal failure of the uprisings to yield democracy lead citizens to give up on democracy as a system of governance? My forthcoming article in the Journal of Democracy, argues that the uprisings had a surprisingly small effect on attitudes of ordinary citizens toward democracy — likely because the uprisings were not really about democracy in the first place. However, it also finds some notable shifts in public opinion, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia.

With one key exception, the results from nationally representative surveys conducted by the Arab Barometer in nine countries reveal that relatively few people across the region changed their desire for democracy since the Arab uprisings. In 2011, at least three-quarters of citizens in each country said that a democratic system that includes public freedoms, equality of political and civil rights, and accountability of authority is a good or very good political system. In 2013, two years after the uprisings, the results were virtually unchanged: at least 80 percent still held this view.

Not only do most Arab citizens say that democracy is a good system, but the majority also agree that, despite its problems, democracy is in fact the best political system. In both 2011 and 2013, at least two-thirds of respondents in all countries rated democracy as the best system, and only Iraq and Yemen exhibited discernible changes.

Measures of commitment to democracy tell a similar story. At the time of the Arab uprisings, fewer than half of the citizens associated democracy with potential problems such as weak economic performance, instability, indecision and citizens’ unpreparedness. In the years that followed, attitudes changed little in all but one country.

The birthplace of the Arab uprisings — and the place where democratic reforms have been the most substantial — is the exception to this pattern. Two years after the uprisings, Tunisians were twice as likely to say that democracy is bad for the economy compared to 2011 (36 percent vs. 18 percent). Soon after the initial protests, only 17 percent of Tunisians said that democracy led to instability compared with 41 percent in 2013. Tunisians also became two-and-a-half times more likely to say that democracy is indecisive (50 percent vs. 20 percent) and 50 percent more likely to say their fellow countrymen were not prepared for democracy (60 percent versus 40 percent) during this period.

While most Tunisians retained faith in democracy as the best system, they also had growing doubts about it.

In certain respects, Egyptians and Tunisians followed similar paths in the wake of the Arab uprisings: both countries held free and fair elections in which Islamist parties claimed victory and led democratic governments. So why did Egyptians, unlike Tunisians, hold fast to their democratic ideals?

The answer rests in who people blamed for the state of their country after the revolutions. Egyptians held the party in power — the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party — and its ideology accountable for the challenges they endured following the revolution. In June 2011, fewer than half (43 percent) of Egyptians said they trusted the Muslim Brotherhood. Similarly, just over one-third (36 percent) of Egyptians favored giving religious leaders influence over decisions of government, a question commonly used to measure of support for political Islam. These findings suggest that the electoral dominance of the Brotherhood in the post-revolutionary period was not grounded in ideological support but rather in organizational strength and a lack of credible alternatives. Citizens were so unenthusiastic that in the first free and fair elections they had ever experienced, roughly half of the electorate stayed home rather than vote for any of the candidates on the ballot.

The transitional period in Egyptian politics served to further weaken the appeal of the Brotherhood and its ideology. By April 2013, in the last months of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, support for political Islam had dropped dramatically from 2011 levels; about half as many citizens (19 percent) favored giving religious leaders say over government decisions compared to just two years earlier. Similarly, trust in the Brotherhood fell to 20 percent.

In contrast, views of political Islam and Ennahda, the main Islamist party, remained unchanged in Tunisia. Soon after the Jasmine revolution, just one in five Tunisians favored political Islam, compared with 24 percent in 2013. Over the same period, trust in Ennahda fell only slightly, from 40 percent to 35 percent, a fraction of the 23-point decline in trust for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

So why do Egyptians hate the player but Tunisians hate the game?

Most likely, this difference is due to the nature of the transition in each country. In Tunisia, Ennahda won the largest share of votes of any party but was unable to form a government without the cooperation of two other parties, resulting in a relatively weak governing coalition that was slow to respond to the challenges facing the country. Instead of blaming Ennahda or its political ideology for the failings of the new government, Tunisians blamed the democratic system that produced a weak and largely ineffectual coalition.

Egypt followed a different path. After victory in the parliamentary and presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies sought to consolidate their power and increase the role for religion in the state. After Morsi temporarily declared himself to be above the law in November 2012, Islamist parties passed a new constitution without support from secular or minority interests. During this period of political polarization, Egyptians blamed problems with the transition on the specific government in power instead of on the democratic process that produced it. The result was a steep decline in support for political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood but no change in the desirability of democracy as a system.

Returning to the broader survey results, why did the uprisings have minimal effect on attitudes toward democracy across the region? One reason may be how citizens think about the protests. In 2013, respondents were asked to identify the three main causes of the Arab uprisings. In six of the nine countries surveyed, fewer than half name “civil and political freedoms and emancipation from oppression” — elements critical to a democratic governance — as one of the three most important impetuses for the protests. Rather, citizens were far more likely to link the uprisings to state corruption or economic outcomes. By implication, few citizens across the region appear to have directly attributed the changes brought about by the uprisings — whether good or bad — to democracy itself.

Additionally, the lessons following the Arab uprisings did not seem to diffuse widely across borders. Although there is clear evidence that diffusion played a role in the initial spread of the demonstrations in 2011, publics in the region appear to have been less affected by subsequent events in Egypt or Tunisia. Instead, reflecting on the limited reforms that took place in their own countries, relatively few citizens across the region updated their beliefs about democracy.

Although the protests and their aftermath have had profound effects on the regional environment, by and large, Arabs have maintained faith in democracy. For proponents of democracy, this finding offers a glimmer of hope. Although this system of governance is unlikely to take root in the region in the near future, most Arab publics remain supportive of democracy.

Michael Robbins (@mdhrobbins) is the director of the Arab Barometer(@arabbarometer). He is a research fellow at the University of Michigan and a senior research specialist at Princeton University.