Gauging Arab public opinion

A new, comprehensive poll illuminates Arabs’ opinions on democracy, corruption, Palestine/Israel, and the US.

Listening Post: Arab Spring - When media could not be silenced
A poll of Arabs in 12 countries found that by a 15-1 ratio, Israel and the US are seen as more threatening than Iran [EPA]

The first of its kind – a poll conducted in 12 Arab countries, representing 84 per cent of the population of the Arab world, in an attempt to gauge the region’s political mood – has arrived at some interesting results.

Organised by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS), face-to-face interviews by Arab surveyors with 16,731 individuals in the first half of 2011 revealed majority support for the goals of the Arab revolutions and notably, for a democratic system of government.

The countries surveyed included Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, with the help of local institutions and research centres.

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While people seem generally split on the question of separation of state and religion, a majority supports the non-interference of religious authorities in politics.

And by a 15-1 ratio, Israel and the US are seen as more threatening than Iran. However, this ratio is lower among those living in proximity to Iran.

Opinions differ on certain issues from country to country and region to region, but there’s clearly a trans-national, trans-border public consensus when it comes to questions of identity and national priorities.

The data generated by the poll, the largest conducted so far in the region, is a treasure trove for those looking to better understand the political environment in the Arab world. 

Main conclusions

Awaiting the publication of the report in English, here are the poll’s main conclusions:

  • A majority describe themselves as religious, but they mostly don’t support the interference of religious authorities in citizens’ political choices.
  • 71 per cent say they don’t distinguish between religious and non-religious people in their economic and social relations.
  • 77 per cent trust their military, half trust their police, 47 per cent trust their governments and 36 per cent trust their local councils before the revolutions.
  • A high 83 per cent believe corruption is widespread in their countries.
  • Only 19 per cent see their states implement the law equally among its citizens.
  • Three quarters of those polled believe that Arab states should take measures to bring their nations closer. An equal percentage believes that states should lift restrictions on free travel and 67 per cent are not satisfied with Arab-Arab co-operation.
  • Contrary to mainstream global media coverage, 73 per cent of those polled see Israel and the US as the two most threatening countries. Five per cent see Iran as the most threatening, a percentage that varies between countries and regions.
  • A high 84 per cent believe the Palestinian question is the cause of all Arabs and not the Palestinians only.
  • A high 84 per cent reject the notion of their state’s recognition of Israel and only 21 per cent support, to a certain degree, the peace agreement signed between Egypt, Jordan and the PLO with Israel. Less than a third agree with their government’s foreign policy.
  • When it comes to WMD, 55 per cent support a region free of nuclear weapons and 55 per cent see Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons as justifying there possession by other countries in the region.

Moreover, a majority of Arabs support the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and believe revolution came about because of corruption, dictatorship and lack of justice and equality. A majority also believe they belong to one Arab nation.

Nuances and caveats

The majority doesn’t approach democracy as merely a Western notion. Rather, it provides a clear definition of a democratic system that includes political plurality, freedom of expression, rule of law, et cetera.

When it comes to specifics, a rather slim majority of 57 per cent supports the rule of a political party they disagree with.

While people are generally supportive of democracy, a minority doesn’t truly understand or accept its main tenets.

A relatively high 36 per cent wouldn’t support those they disagree with in their political platform to take power, a percentage that doesn’t bode well for democracy.

This shows that while there is an intention to move towards pluralism among most people, there is resistance to pluralism and diversity among a certain minority.

A high majority in Egypt and Tunisia are optimistic that their countries will fare better in three years than during the rule of Mubarak and Ben Ali.

It remains to be seen to what degree the opinions expressed in the poll are a reflection of excitement about the revolutions, and how far people are ready to go to establish democratic systems.

But that’s precisely why an annual sequel to this poll, as promised by ACRPS, is indispensable for better understanding of Arab thinking beyond mood swings and abrupt changes.

Polls have originally been the tools used to gauge consumerist tendencies, priorities in Western societies and business. They were developed into advanced tools to monitor the public’s political mood, required for certain political confidence, societal openness and stability.

To what degree Arab respondents express their minds freely and without any fear remains to be seen. However, for the first time in decades, people seem more willing and able to share their political sentiments, thanks to the revolutions.

The substantial size of the poll certainly helps obtain better results. But it’s not only quantitative.

The methodology used by ACPRS pollsters – a 40-minute face-to-face interview with each respondent – allows for more accurate results than the usual quick phone interviews.

The approach here contrasts sharply with Western-type polls in the Arab world that project Western, not Arab, priorities, and/or are centered around slogans and clichés.

This is not a poll that asks people whether they feel Muslim or Arab, or whether they support the women’s veil or democracy.

The poll, the first to be conducted after the Arab upheavals, shows a people in tune with the change that swept the Arab region.

But how does the poll square with the election results in various Arab nations where Islamists have made serious advances – such as Egypt, where conservative and ultra-conservative Islamist parties won 70 per cent of the vote?

The two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the polls discussed give a better and deeper explanation of the vote patterns and of the opinions of those who thus far have remained silent.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and the author of The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara