The Middle East Channel

What Egyptians mean by democracy

Egyptian activists took to the streets on September 9 calling to "correct the path" of a revolution which they see slipping away. They particularly focused their ire on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which they see as leading a counter-revolution against the will of the Egyptian people. But part of their problem ...


Egyptian activists took to the streets on September 9 calling to "correct the path" of a revolution which they see slipping away. They particularly focused their ire on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which they see as leading a counter-revolution against the will of the Egyptian people. But part of their problem is that, according to a survey carried out by the Arab Barometer this summer, 94.5 percent of Egyptians responded that they trusted the SCAF and 93.5 percent thought it was doing a good job — far more than they do any other part of Egyptian society.

While 78.7 percent of Egyptians agreed that "despite its problems democracy is the best for form of government," their support for democracy is at least in part driven by a belief that such a system is good for the economy. Of the respondents, 64.4 percent defined the most essential characteristic of democracy as either a low level of inequality or the provision of basic necessities for all citizens. Another 12.1 percent stated that it is eliminating corruption. By contrast, only 6.0 percent defined democracy’s most essential characteristic as the ability to change the government through elections and only 3.9 percent defined it as the right to criticize those in power. With 84.2 percent of respondents saying that the economy represents Egypt’s greatest challenge, these findings should offer some powerful lessons to all of those interested in supporting Egypt’s transition.

The Arab Barometer project is dedicated to carrying out nationally representative surveys throughout the Arab world and is nearing the completion of its second wave, covering eleven countries. In Egypt, the results demonstrate that at the time of the survey (interviewers were in the field from June 16-July 3) most Egyptians were satisfied and optimistic about political matters. It found that virtually all Egyptians believe the revolution will achieve its goals. We asked if respondents believed that the revolution would be successful in six areas: achieving a democratic political system, improving economic opportunities, increasing respect for human rights, increasing the rule of law, increasing levels of social justice, and bringing Egypt a greater role in international affairs. In each case, over 95 percent of the respondents agreed that the revolution would achieve the objective.

While they approved of the SCAF and of the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (77.7 percent gave him positive marks), Egyptians were less satisfied with their achievements. On a 10-point scale measuring satisfaction, with 10 indicating high satisfaction, only 52.2 percent of the respondents rated them at a six or higher. This rating is similar to the belief that personal safety is assured (52.3 percent) and that the government is doing a good job managing the economy (50.7 percent). Lower still are the number of respondents who said the current economic situation is good (24.1 percent), the government is doing well in creating jobs (25.3 percent), or the government has done a good job in narrowing the gap between rich and poor (31.3 percent).

However, most Egyptians remain optimistic about the future. Of those surveyed, 84.4 percent believe the government will be able to solve the country’s economic problems within five years. Similarly, although 81.7 percent consider government corruption a serious problem, 79.2 percent believe that the government is taking significant steps to address the problem. The majority of citizens perceive the government to be working for their good. For example, 71.9 percent believe the government is doing all it can to provide needed services, and 69.1 percent stated that the government is knowledgeable about the needs of ordinary citizens. We cannot know for sure how much these ratings have changed since Mubarak’s fall, since we were unable to get government approval to do a survey in Egypt for the first wave of the Barometer. We did ask respondents about their past level of satisfaction with Mubarak’s regime on this survey, however. On a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest), 72.6 percent gave Mubarak’s regime a 1 and only 7.7 percent rated it as a 6 or better. These figures suggest there is a dramatic increase in government satisfaction over the previous regime.

Looking toward this fall’s elections, currently scheduled to begin ina November, the Arab Barometer survey indicates that attachments to most political factions are relatively weak.  Trust in political parties is mixed, with 55.6 percent of the respondents expressing a significant degree or quite a lot of trust in parties while about one-third indicated that party affiliation would be an important consideration in their vote choice. Only 3.7 percent stated that this would be the most important consideration, and just 9.4 percent of respondents expressed support for a specific party.

The factors that ordinary citizens consider to be most important are primarily specific to candidates. The three most common considerations affecting vote choice are the candidate’s level of education, religiosity, and position on important issues at 31.0 percent, 24.9 percent, and 24.3 percent, respectively. Thus, it seems likely that well-known candidates will have an important advantage in the balloting.

The Muslim Brotherhood may be well positioned to contest the elections because of its organizational capacity and past experience, but attitudes toward the Brotherhood at best are mixed. Less than half of the respondents (47.3 percent) stated that they have trust in the Brotherhood and only 3.2 percent stated that the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party most closely approximates their own political beliefs.

These low levels of support for the Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party could be in part explained by the views of ordinary citizens toward religion and politics.  Although less than 2 percent of respondents indicated that they were not religious, the majority of ordinary Egyptians do not favor a significantly greater role for religion in the political system. Only 36.8 percent of respondents stated that religious leaders should influence decisions of government while 86.8 percent said that religious leaders should not influence how people vote in elections. Less than half (46.9 percent) believed it would be better for Egypt if more people with strong religious beliefs held public office.  Most notably, 79.7 percent responded that they believe that religion is a private matter and should be separate from social and political life. If the Brotherhood fares well in the upcoming elections, it does not appear that this outcome should be interpreted as a popular call for a more religious political system.

The Arab Barometer survey makes clear that, despite current frustrations by some members of society, the vast majority of Egyptians are satisfied with the direction in which the country is moving. Most appear to be less concerned about political reform than economic performance, and most also appear to understand that progress will take time. Indeed 88.8 percent stated that reform should proceed gradually rather than all at once. Accordingly, at least for the time being, it seems unlikely that the frustration of Egyptian activists over the lack of progress toward democracy will bring large numbers of ordinary Egyptians back into the streets. If activists hope to appeal to voters in the upcoming elections, they should instead take heed of the overwhelming focus on the economy and the hope for a better future.

Michael Robbins is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan and a former Dubai Initiative Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.  Mark Tessler is Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor of Political Science and Vice-Provost for International Affairs at the University of Michigan.