Opinion | Columnists

Assessing the mood on the Arab street

No more groping in the dark for information on what the people really want

  • By Oussama Romdhani, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 August 4, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

In the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, opinion polls have been providing fresh insights about Arab societies. In Tunisia, in particular, new surveys have offered a trove of information about opinion trends and the way the mood in Tunisia compares with that in other Arab countries.

Unrestricted polls in the Arab world were uncommon prior to the Arab Spring. Because of their own restrictive policies, the former regimes deprived themselves of the means to assess the mood in the street. Till the last minute, they had no ‘radar screens’ to warn them of the huge mountain chains ahead before crashing into them.

In Tunisia, noted the US International Republican Institute, “independent public opinion surveys were not permitted”, and “today there is a high demand for survey data to provide Tunisian civil society and government officials an important tool to understand and respond to citizen priorities”.

The picture of Arab societies that emerges from all the recent polls reveals both diversity and commonality of concerns. What unites the overwhelming majority of Arab populations is the perception of unemployment as the number one priority. That is no surprise, since unemployment was the overriding catalyst for the uprisings in Arab countries, starting with Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, in December 2010.

Almost all polls and surveys conducted by international and domestic organisations point to that enduring concern among the Tunisian public. Along with unemployment, in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world, the public is concerned about bread-and-butter issues. According to a July 2012 Pew Global Attitudes survey, 92 per cent of Tunisians today feel that improving the economy is the most important issue.

The majority across the Arab-Islamic world favours democracy, freedom of expression and gender equality. But when confronted with the choice between a ‘good democracy’ and a “strong economy”, the public seems painfully torn. Some Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Pakistanis would prefer “a strong economy” to a “good democracy”. Others, such as the Turks and the Lebanese, chose the opposite.

Another salient feature of Arab and Muslim opinions is the prominence of the religious factor. Last month’s Pew survey showed that in places as varied as Tunisia, Jordan, Pakistan and Iran, Islam is seen as already playing a prominent role in politics. And more than 80 per cent of Tunisians described Islam’s role as “positive”.

But opinions differ, however, on what kind of role Islam should play in public life. While clear majorities in Jordan, Egypt (and also Pakistan) believe the laws of the land should “strictly follow the teachings of the Quran”, 64 per cent of Tunisians (and 44 per cent of Turks) want laws to be just “influenced by the values and principles of Islam”.

Those who believe the Quran should not influence laws represent 1 per cent in Jordan, 6 per cent in Egypt and 12 per cent in Tunisia. It is to be recalled that for months, Tunisian public opinion was strongly polarised about Islam as a source of legislation. That potentially dangerous polarisation was defused only after the leading majority party Al Nahda (Islamist) chose not to endorse a provision in the constitution that would have declared ‘Islam as the main source of legislation’ — a position that stirred the wrath of Al Qaida’s Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Radical Salafists have made their voices heard at home within post-Arab Spring societies. What is surprising today is not the existence of such views but rather the margin of support they enjoy. According to last month’s Pew survey, those who espouse ‘favourable’ views of Taliban and Al Qaida represent, respectively, 10 per cent and 14 per cent of the public in Jordan, 19 per cent in Egypt, and 12 per cent and 16 per cent in Tunisia. Only in Lebanon is it minimal (2 per cent). These figures merit further scrutiny, but it is difficult to go along with Pew analysts’ conclusion that this constitutes “limited support to extremist groups”.

Kamal Bin Younus, president of the Tunis-based Ibn Rushd Forum, argues that “decades of repression have created radical fringes, both religious and secular”. But differentiating the ‘secularist’ from the ‘religious’ in the Arab-Muslim world remains a slippery task. Criteria and labels derived from western terms of reference cannot be easily applied in more-conservative Islamic cultures.

US International Republic Institute pollsters have noted, for instance, that 65 per cent of the Tunisian public does not know the difference between ‘secular’ and ‘non-secular’ preferences. Respondents had in fact to be offered a definition of ‘secularism’ before expressing an opinion about it.

With enough worries at home, it is not surprising that Arab and Muslim opinions are turning inward. A Zogby Research Services poll shows the Palestine issue to be among the two last priorities for citizens in five out of the eight Arab and Muslim countries surveyed. Arab publics seem to be far more consumed by the daily grind of ensuring a decent living.

James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute and director of Zogby Research Services, offers another explanation: “The main reason that passions have cooled on Palestine is due to Palestinian disarray. If there is fatigue, it’s self-inflicted. But the one thing that will bring it back to centre stage is Israeli bad behaviour,” he says.

A lot of these new indicators remain to be analysed and further finetuned by pollsters and researchers. But something has been already irreversibly achieved: new political operators in the Arab world can now rely on the radar screens of public opinion surveys to guide them through the democratic transitions. Groping in the dark is no more an option — and that’s a very welcome new trend.

Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian communication minister.

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