Do Arabs Want Democracy?


Some might interpret the survey results as demonstrating a lack of demand or a lack of belief in democracy on the part of Arabs. They would likely be wrong, or at least be selectively using data that supports their views. Results from the Arab Barometer’s 2018 survey demonstrate, for example, that Arabs increasingly consider democracy to be the best system of government. Yet other data in the report demonstrates how popular perceptions and other priorities may be impeding the actual pursuit of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries.


This graph was created by the authors based on data from the Arab Barometer.

As seen in the above tables, the immediate pursuit of democratic political systems was not listed as a top three priority in either data set. By ranking “expanding employment opportunities” and “political and governmental reform” above “advancing democracy,” respondents seemed inclined towards a better economic status and a go-slow approach to political change. While it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the data, it would not be surprising if the results reflected general wariness towards the instability of democratic movements seen in Egypt and Tunisia.

However, it should be repeated that this disinclination for rapid change does not imply Arab fear of or distaste for democracy. Arab attitudes towards the system of democracy appear to be overwhelmingly positive; in the two most recent waves of Arab Barometer’s polling, all six Arab countries surveyed demonstrated a strong—and growing—acceptance of democracy as the best type of government.


This graph was created by the authors based on data from the Arab Barometer.

But do Arabs believe are they ready? According to the same Arab Barometer data, there has been an increased perception since 2014 that people in Palestine, Algeria, and Tunisia are not ready for democracy. This trend coincides with other data from the same report; in particular, these three countries happen to be the states most skeptical about democracy’s stability and economic payoffs. Meanwhile, Morocco and Jordan, where respondents expressed greater faith in democracy’s provision of stability and economic benefits, were the countries most confident in their suitability for democracy. In sum, some Arabs believe democracy is “ineffective in maintaining stability,” others believe lack of representative government is an “obstacle to stability.”
By juxtaposing Palestine, Algeria, and Tunisia against Morocco and Jordan, one may wonder why countries from the same region possess such contrasting attitudes towards democracy and its effects. Perhaps this phenomenon can be explained by the extenuating circumstances surrounding the first set of countries. It could be argued that Algerians, most of whom consider the country to be less democratic in 2017 than in 2014, glean their opinions about democracy from their geographical neighbor, Tunisia. If this were the case, both Algerians and Tunisians may feel less prepared for democracy now because the latter was shaken by the instability of its transition towards democracy in 2011.

This instability was particularly impactful in Tunisia—and not necessarily in Morocco or Jordan—because Tunisians lack significant trust in political leadersand  institutions; more trust could have made the democratization process more stable. Meanwhile, Palestinians’ unpreparedness could be attributed to the unique difficulties of democratizing amid enduring political divisions and the ongoing Israeli occupation. However, these explanations are extrapolated from separate Arab Barometer and Zogby Research Services data sets and therefore, fall into the realm of informed speculation. For example, Algerians’ reliance on Tunisia as a political archetype could be overestimated.


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