Scholars of public opinion, including Arab Barometer researchers, offer ample evidence of support for democracy in the Arab world, notes Lindsay J. Benstead, an assistant professor of political science in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.
Yet, in a recent article published in “Democratization,” I revisited these Arab Barometer data and found that support for democracy is not as widespread as received wisdom suggests, she writes for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:
I found that 27 percent of citizens of six countries surveyed by the Arab Barometer believed that democracy is best but unsuitable for their country. The reasons citizens saw democracy as unsuitable stem not from religion or economic modernization – the focus of many studies of Arab public opinion – but from concerns about economic problems and political instability that could accompany free elections.
My research found that 60 percent of citizens strongly support democracy, as indicated by their response to two statements (See Table 3). This group feels that democracy is the best form of government and suitable for the respondents’ own country. Only 7 percent of the region’s citizens reject democracy on both these indicators. Yet, 27 percent regard democracy as the best form of government, but deem it unsuitable at home.
What accounts for these seemingly contradictory views? The answer, it turns out, stems in large part from the respondents’ expectations of what democracy might bring. When citizens worry about economic upheaval, violence or negative cultural ramifications as a result of free elections, they are more likely to reject democracy at home.
Activists and international actors need to redouble efforts to support the development of fledgling democratic institutions in Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in order to improve stability and economic opportunities and build confidence that democracy really is best, Benstead concludes.