The Missing Piece

More than a year after the 2011 uprisings, Arab publics are concerned about the economy, but hopeful about democracy.


In Egypt, Mohamed Morsy, the country’s first civilian president, is locked in a power struggle with his generals. To the west, votes are still being counted, but it looks as if rebel political leader Mahmoud Jibril will be responsible for unifying post-war Libya and bringing rogue militias into the fold. Both men also face harsh economic realities, compounded by months of conflict and unrest. These are the dual challenges wrought by the Arab Spring: Institutionalizing nascent democracy while simultaneously kick-starting much-needed economic growth.

In a perfect world, democracy and economic growth would be mutually reinforcing. But in many corners of the globe — from Latin America, to Africa, to the former Soviet bloc — the reality has proven to be more complex. Whether the Arab world can have both democracy and prosperity is a question that will play out for months and years. But for now, all we can do is measure the attitudes and aspirations of Arab citizens themselves.

Solid majorities in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia say that democracy is the best form of government, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. At the same time, at least seven-in-ten respondents from these countries say that their national economy is performing poorly. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the diversity of the region, people from different Arab countries weigh the tradeoff between these differently. Most Jordanians and Tunisians believe that robust economic growth is more important than consolidating democracy. The Lebanese, in contrast, place more importance on democracy, while Egyptians are evenly divided.

What do Arab publics make of the Arab Spring’s impact on prospects for democracy? Across the board, solid majorities believe the 2011 popular uprisings will lead to more democracy in the Middle East, including nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in Egypt and seven-in-ten in Tunisia. Roughly two-thirds in Jordan and Lebanon agree.

But as the recent Tunisian and Egyptian elections demonstrate, voters have their own views about what democracy should look like.

Most in these four Arab nations want a major role for Islam in public life, and most want Islam to have at least some influence on their nation’s laws. Majorities in Jordan and Egypt believe laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran, while in Tunisia, a former French colony, views on this question look like more secular Muslim nations such as Turkey and Indonesia. Most Tunisians want their laws to be influenced by the values and principles of Islam, but not to strictly follow the Quran. 

In three of four nations, solid majorities say Islam is already playing a large role in the country’s political life. In newly democratic Tunisia, where the Islamist party Ennahda won the largest share of votes in the recent parliamentary election, fully 84 percent think Islam already has a major role. Similarly, in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has won both parliamentary and presidential elections, 66 percent hold this view, up from 47 percent just two years ago. The clear exception is Jordan, where the Western-educated and largely secular King Abdullah II continues to hold the reins. Only 31 percent of Jordanians believe Islam currently plays a large part in their nation’s political life.

While most people in the Arab countries surveyed believe democratic institutions and political stability are crucial priorities, even more prioritize economic prosperity. Their concerns are understandable. The International Monetary Fund foresees slow growth for the region in 2012: only 1.5 percent in Egypt, 2.2 percent in Tunisia, 2.8 percent in Jordan and 3 percent in Lebanon. Strong majorities in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt say their standard of living has either not improved or has gotten worse over the last generation. And, in the wake of the Arab Spring, their current economic situation is worsening. Majorities in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan think their personal economic situation is bad — and the percentage has increased in all three countries since the Arab Spring broke out.

Tunisians stand apart, however. A majority (57 percent) thinks their lives are better than that of their parents. And 56 percent say their personal finances are good.

The economic outlook over the next 12 months is mixed. Half or more in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt believe the economy will improve, but less than a third of Jordanians and Lebanese say the same. Meanwhile, people in all the countries surveyed believe overwhelmingly that the next generation will struggle to exceed today’s standard of living.  

This downbeat mood about the economy coincides with low levels of faith in capitalism, democracy’s economic handmaiden. Just half or fewer in Egypt (50 percent), Jordan (43 percent) and Tunisia (42 percent) agree that most people are better off in a free market economy. And while a majority of Lebanese embrace capitalism, support is down 12 percentage points since 2007, a year before the start of the global recession.

The Arab uprisings had two broad objectives: Democracy and improved economic conditions. But even as Arab publics have largely embraced democracy (often despite the reluctance of their governments to follow suit), the economies in the region are still struggling.  

If the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia are unable to deliver economically, public faith in capitalism and nascent democratic institutions may falter. Over the last few years, the dismal economic performance of many former Eastern bloc countries has resulted in plummeting enthusiasm for both democracy and capitalism. The heady optimism that followed the Berlin Wall’s collapse has since been replaced by economic and political frustration. It remains to be seen if Arab public opinion will follow a similar trajectory.   

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