It has been almost 22 months now since the Arab uprisings erupted in rural Tunisia, triggering dramatic events and structural changes across much of the Arab world, though the outcomes of the historic transformations under way remain largely unclear. Some of the pressing issues still to be decided include the outcome of the struggle for Syria, whether North African countries creating new governments can establish credible and stable political systems, and whether most Arab countries can create enough new jobs to stave off new uprisings.
A common question around the region and the world is whether the Islamist groups that are doing well in most new elections will consolidate their democratic legitimacy, or in some cases use their power to force an Islamization of society.
The widespread realization has set in that we may not have definitive answers to these and other key questions for some years. It is useful nevertheless to step back a bit from day-to-day events, or even short-term trends, and try to identify some of the changes that are apparent in both political realities and the mindsets of ordinary people. The latter issue – how ordinary Arab men and women feel about themselves, their societies and their future prospects – now matters more than it did during recent decades, because we have seen the consequences of mass action by such people.
I learned something about this matter when I had the pleasure this week in Washington, D.C. of being on a panel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The session discussed a report on Arab youth produced by the institute that I direct at the American University of Beirut – the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs – with the support and cooperation of the Unicef regional office for the Middle East and North Africa. My fellow panelist was Dalia Mogahed, a senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, who has tracked and analyzed attitudes of citizens in Muslim majority countries for the past decade. Her observations on some of the changes in the past 22 months are worth noting, because they point to both the positive developments in our region as well as some of the continuing vulnerabilities. Among the points she made were the following:
Broadly speaking, people across the region in countries where democratic transitions have started to occur are more optimistic than before about their country and themselves. They expect that the changes under way will eventually lead to better governance systems and improvements in their own sense of well-being. People also feel more empowered, in the sense that they feel they have the ability to improve conditions when those conditions are unsatisfying to them.
This mood coincides with the general increase in trust in government institutions. People’s faith in the honesty of elections has risen from 20 percent to over 90 percent in some countries.
Ironically, this has happened while daily economic conditions have worsened in most countries, and at a time when more citizens feel that security conditions are worse now than they were before the uprisings. Citizens’ fear of crime has increased in countries where regimes were overthrown, even though the formal crime rate based on reported attacks or robberies has not changed significantly.
Despite these economic and security problems, Mogahed noted, majorities of citizens in countries in transition (Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya) still feel that conditions and their own well-being will improve in coming years. People’s faith in their ability to bring about changes for the better through peaceful means has also increased broadly, which parallels their increased confidence in state institutions such as the judiciary, parliament and constitutional systems.
The danger here, though, she noted, is that the stubborn expectations of better days ahead may not be fulfilled in all cases. And if today’s high expectations are dashed, we might face unpredictable responses or even new threats.
One fascinating new trend she pointed out has been the increase in criticisms of American policies in the region. For example, about 60 percent of Egyptians before the uprising felt the United States was not serious about promoting democracy and opposed receiving American aid. Both those figures have risen to 80 percent today.
Looking beyond the transitioning countries, she noted appreciable differences between the views of their publics and the views in countries that have not experienced uprisings and regime changes. Countries that did not experience uprisings mostly looked with anxiety at countries in the midst of often messy transitions, which they saw mainly in terms of difficult economic, political and security challenges, and even chaos. They also tended to see a foreign hand in some of the uprisings, while the citizens in transforming countries saw their changes as a consequence of indigenous action and will.
This divide between these two groups of Arab countries may grow in the future, Mogahed suggested, and this may have unpredictable consequences.
The writer is a columnist at the Lebanon-based Daily Star, where this article was published on Oct. 13, 2012