Revolution, citizenship and democracy in transitional Arab states

The Arab awakening has yet to produce a genuine revolution, writes Hussein Ibish in this guest blog, and it is unlikely to do so unless political actors embrace a more liberal, inclusive concept of citizenship. While the region’s Islamists may have accepted democratic institutions and practices, even moderates amongst their ranks promote a staunchly illiberal, stunted idea of citizenship that threatens to stifle the development of a genuine democratic culture and distort emerging transitions.

As the Arab uprisings continue to unfold, the word “revolution” is often bandied about with complete disregard for what an actual revolution entails. A coup; a pacted or managed transition between elements of the ancien régime and opposition forces; or simple regime change do not constitute a genuine revolution.

Revolution, properly defined, means that society changes both from the top-down and bottom-up, and looks very little as it did before. Some famous revolutions are more dramatic in this context than others. It’s obvious that the Russian and French revolutions, for example, changed everything almost overnight and dramatically for the people of those countries. The revolution against British rule in the United States, on the other hand, changed a great deal but also preserved much of what was long-established. Nothing was ever the same in the United States after the revolution, but the change was more cautious, gradual and vigorously debated than the vanguardist transformations in Russia or France.

By these standards, the only Arab country which could possibly be described as having actually undergone a revolution is Libya. A principal reason for this is that Colonel Moammar Qaddafi established so few real social and governmental institutions that any alternative government, even one following his natural death, would have faced the need to build such structures from their very base. Yet even in Libya, there are real questions about how revolutionary the transformation will be.

The head of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustapha Abdul Jalil, after all, previously served as “the Secretary of the General People’s Committee of Justice” (essentially the minister of justice, as defined in the bizarre lexicon of Qaddafi’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya – itself a neologism reflective of his twisted thinking). There are plenty of opposition figures in the new Libyan leadership and a very different political scene, especially given the absence of Qaddafi and his sons. But even in Libya there are grounds to question whether political developments constitute a bona fide revolution.

In Egypt, there was certainly no revolution. The military was forced to perform a regime decapitation, removing former President Hosni Mubarak and his family, and some other elements of the elite as well as the ruling National Democratic Party, in order to try to save as much of the existing power structure — particularly their own prerogatives, privileges and economic holdings — as possible. Much of the former regime remains intact, including the Ministry of the Interior and its secret police. Egypt is now the scene of an intense, complex and convoluted power struggle between three established forces: the military, the remnants of the former regime (including the MOI and secret police) and the Muslim Brotherhood. The liberal street protesters who brought down the former regime serve as an unorganized and unstructured fourth factor that can be brought into play in the context of a crisis. Nothing that has happened there reflects a real political or social revolution.

Yemen’s protest movement was hijacked by a power struggle within the elite, between forces loyal to President Ali Abdallah Saleh, his son and nephews, and those aligned with the Ahmar clan and rebel generals such as Ali Mohsen Ahmar (who, in spite of his last name, is related to Saleh, not his rivals in the Ahmar clan and their de facto leader, telecommunications tycoon Hamid Al-Ahmar). Whether this power struggle between the elites in Sanaa has been resolved or not remains to be seen, but even if it has, that elite will have to deal with a revivified “Southern Movement” which seeks either radical autonomy or independence for the south; the strengthened Houthi rebellion; some other secessionist movements; numerous Salafist-Jihadist groups, including but by no means limited to Al Qaeda, which control large parts of rural territory; a drought; a Somali refugee crisis of considerable proportions; and a population that is by far the most illiterate, unemployed, under-educated and heavily armed in the entire Arab world. In other words, the factors working in Yemen’s favor for a brighter future can be listed on one hand (possibly with superfluous fingers remaining), whereas the list of challenges   is formidable. Failed statehood, or a threatened deterioration to that status, is not a revolution either.

In Bahrain, demonstrators never sought a revolution, except perhaps the fringe led by Hassan Mushaima and Al Haq that called for a republic to replace the monarchy. But most mainstream opposition groups, most notably Al-Wefaq, were not talking in terms of revolution or even regime change, but rather stronger forms of constitutionalism to produce a greater balance of power between royal and popular prerogatives, and redressing grievances specific to the long-marginalized Shiite majority. Even though the uprising, for the most part, did not seek to abolish the monarchy, it was successfully crushed by force and so by no means can we speak of revolution in Bahrain.

On the other hand, a “revolutionary situation” might be brewing because of growing tensions between the government and the opposition, particularly the Shiite community; the lack of any forum for dialogue to produce a reasonable accommodation; the splintering of leaderships on both sides; and the rise of radical fringes, including what may be the beginning of urban terrorism and sabotage by radical opposition forces, and the concurrent rise of Sunni vigilantes of a previously unknown Salafist variety, attacking Shiite villages. Revolutionary situations don’t necessarily generate genuine or stable revolutions, but rather yield open-ended conflict, which presently appears to be the direction in which Bahrain, very much in the grip of Saudi hegemony, is headed.

Syria seems not only to have a fully-fledged revolutionary situation but to be inexorably headed towards full-blown civil war, probably of a sectarian nature. The government is manifestly uninterested in and patently incapable of reform. Meanwhile the opposition is deeply divided politically, militarily weak (armed opposition is strictly at an insurgency level; unable to control and hold any territory); lacks proper coordination between disparate armed groups and divided political ones; and is unable to articulate a coherent vision for Syria’s future or inspire confidence that it constitutes a viable alternative leadership, as the NTC in Libya did. Civil wars, especially of a sectarian nature, are unlikely incubators of anything that could legitimately be described as a revolution.

This summary of why the Arab uprisings don’t qualify as revolutionary begs the question of what would.

A genuinely revolutionary transition fundamentally changes the relationship between the individual, society and state. Regime change, coups, civil wars, and similar political ruptures that maintain the pre-existing relationship between the individual and the state cannot be considered revolutionary. This is the missing element in the Arab uprisings: none can be said to have fundamentally changed the citizen-state nexus.

Revolutions need not constitute an improvement in that relationship: the Communist “new man” became a vassal of a vanguardist socialist clique; fascist revolutions aimed to produce mindless nationalist automatons; some revolutions, like the Khmer Rouge’s in Cambodia, recast individuals as enemies of the new society, marked for death. So revolutionary change is not necessarily positive, but it must be comprehensive.

While none of the Arab uprisings have transformed the relationship between the individual and the state. Libya has changed more dramatically – at least superficially – than anywhere else. But the country is too chaotic, deeply in flux, and reverting to tribal, clan and regional affiliations that predate the Qaddafi era to identify a more healthy, relationship between the individual, state and society. Indeed, across most of the Arab world, the uprisings are driving people back into more atavistic identities: sectarianism, both local and regional; tribal affiliations; clan loyalties; and subnational regional agendas have all enjoyed a terrible resurgence.

If the Arab world is ready for a new political and social consciousness that fundamentally reshapes political and social relations, it will be shaped at the level of citizenship. The concept of citizenship, with its complex, mutually reinforcing and interdependent relationships of rights and responsibilities, has been largely absent from modern Arab political discourse. Citizenship is a new idea and the struggle to define it is at the core of the most promising of these uprisings, particularly in the one transition I have not yet addressed: Tunisia.

Over the past decade or so, a new idea has taken root in most strains of Arab political thinking: the notion that legitimate governance requires the consent of the governed and its corollary that only regular, multiparty elections and the peaceful transfer of power can affirm that consent. The basic outlines of this idea are now accepted by almost all current strands of Arab political thought, with the notable exception of existing ruling elites and their courtiers (whether in republics or monarchies); and extreme Salafist groups, particularly Salafist-Jihadists, who reject the idea as “unIslamic.” Even illiberal organizations such as Muslim Brotherhood parties and other Islamist groups understand the centrality of this concept, at least in theory.

What is not nearly as widely understood or accepted, even in theory, is the other side of the coin of democracy: limitations on the powers of government; separation of powers between different branches (particularly the need for an independent judiciary to enforce those limitations); and, above all, the inviolable rights of minorities, women and, especially, individuals on the basis of their status as citizens. In some countries, such as Egypt, the current struggle of political ideas revolves around efforts by Islamists, probably at the peak of their influence, to assert as much as possible maximal authority for majority rule.

But throughout the Middle East, and above all in Tunisia, which is by far the furthest along in developing a constitutional post-dictatorship system, Islamists are disturbingly taking the lead in promoting and defining the concept of citizenship. This has deeply ominous implications.

Consider the harm done to the concept of secularism because of its abuse by Arab republican dictatorships that framed themselves as secular, only to use this as an excuse for radical forms of repression, including against genuine secularists as well as Islamists and other opposition groups. In other words, when the wrong people define important concepts, words can be stripped of their meaning to the point that they become unworkable and even anathema. Damaging mischaracterizations and misunderstandings of indispensable ideas thereby poison political discourse.

If the Arab uprisings are to become genuine revolutions, they will have to transform ordinary Arab individuals from mere subjects of the state — to be managed and controlled — into citizens empowered to participate freely in all aspects of society with no unreasonable limitations. The essence of citizenship is that the individual has inviolable rights, such as freedom of conscience, religion, speech, property, equal treatment under the law, and equal status, and reciprocal responsibilities, such as paying taxes, public service, abiding by the rule of law, and consent to legitimate authority. The most fundamental element of real citizenship is that individual rights cannot be compromised by democratic decisions of tyrannous majorities. Genuine democracy requires balancing the rights of majorities and majority coalitions to executive and/or legislative power, with limitations on government, and inviolable minority and individual rights protected by an independent judiciary. If citizenship is defined in any other way it will, like secularism, become a term that is poisoned in Arab political discourse and is rendered virtually useless for at least a generation.

Tunisia is central because its Islamists are the most advanced, sophisticated, imaginative and, indeed, crafty in the Arab world. It’s ironic that few Arab liberals or progressives pay as much attention to the concept (or at least the rhetoric) of citizenship as Ennahda’s spiritual guide Rashid Ghanouchi or its main spokesman Said Ferjani. Indeed, anyone looking at the rhetoric in the contemporary Arab world without any context or historical understanding might be tempted to see Ghanouchi and Ferjani as fully-developed liberal, constitutionalist Muslim Democrats, in the manner of the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe. In reality they are nothing of the kind, at least for now. They are probably the Arab Islamists furthest along in any evolution in this direction, if in fact that is where they are going.

But, it’s important to note that citizenship as defined by Islamists like Ghanouchi and Ferjani is still framed in the context of “Islamic traditions” and “Islamic values.” Ferjani, in particular, is exceptionally eloquent on the concept of citizenship, and has correctly identified it as the key to creating genuinely pluralistic, democratic post-dictatorship Arab societies. Yet his party remains absolutely committed to an interpretation of not only Islam, but also “Islamic societies,” that claims authenticity based on socially reactionary ideals. Arab Islamists, including Ennahda, frame religious equality in interfaith terms: they would recognize, at least in theory, the right to be Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Jewish, or hold any other religious conviction. So a certain respect for this kind of freedom of religion is accepted by Islamists, insofar as they understand that there are different kinds of Muslims and others who belong to a different religion. But as recent blasphemy prosecutions in Tunisia and similar intolerant incidents elsewhere demonstrate, the idea that there might be skeptical citizens who are atheists or agnostics, and that these citizens have a right to publicly question religion, engage in blasphemy, satire, scholarly interrogation of the history of various religions (including Islam), or promote radical skepticism and rejection of religion is still totally outside their frame of reference.

Similarly, Islamist definitions of citizenship confront a major problem regarding gender. If they claim to be in favor of equal citizenship, but insist that this equality must be grounded in Islamic traditions, Islamists face an impossible conundrum. Most traditional interpretations of Islam give Muslim men more rights than Muslim women in terms of inheritance, divorce, child custody, court testimony, and many other familial and social matters. They also give Muslim men more rights than non-Muslim men. It’s absurd but symptomatic that in both Tunisia and Egypt there are huge controversies among Islamists about whether non-Muslims (inevitably defined as Jews or Christians, rather than atheists or agnostics, the latter being entirely outside their frame of reference) should be allowed to serve as president. In neither case is this a likely scenario given that both Egypt and Tunisia have over 85 percent Sunni Muslim majorities. So the question boils down to one of formalizing discrimination rather than worrying about the rise to power of a Jewish Tunisian or a Coptic Egyptian president (neither of which are conceivable given those countries’ present circumstances and political cultures).

In short, the struggle for good governance, equal rights, pluralism, tolerance, and actual democracy boils down to the question how citizenship is defined and incorporated into post-dictatorship Arab societies. If Islamists are allowed to monopolize the discourse regarding citizenship, convert it into a vehicle for simply legitimizing majority rule that that oppress the rights of women, minorities and individuals, and hijack the concept of citizenship the way former dictatorships appropriated and distorted the concept of secularism, there will be no Arab revolutions. If Islamist parties consistently win electoral majorities under such conditions, there will simply be the transfer of one form of authoritarian rule to another (albeit electorally legitimized and bolstered, but with limited separation of powers and few protections for minority and individual rights). There is reason to be deeply concerned that Islamists are dominating the conversation about citizenship at this moment in Arab political discourse. If one had any confidence that they were sincere about the rights of citizens inherent in their individual citizenship, this would be a welcome rather than a worrying development. But any such confidence would be grossly naïve.

Therefore, one of the most urgent tasks facing those who seek a genuinely revolutionary, liberating and progressive Arab post-dictatorship future is to engage in the struggle over the definition of citizenship, and ensure that Islamists are not able to hijack this ideal to defend oppressive majority rule, but rather to inculcate a sense of citizenship that defines and defends the rights of each and every individual, woman and man alike. Liberty, at its root, means maximizing the range of choices for every individual in any society while protecting the rights of others from encroachment by those choices. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s one that most of the rest of the world is much further along in negotiating than the Arabs.

What most Arabs, above all the Islamists but also many liberals who unwisely and indefensibly prefer the old authoritarianism over potentially Islamist, or Islamist-influenced, but limited and constitutionalist governments, should understand is that the only freedom that really counts is the freedom for others to be radically wrong in one’s own eyes. Pluralism means accepting the right of somebody else to choose to be completely wrong in your opinion, and yet defending that right in the context of freedom of conscience. This is the idea that must make headway in the Arab world if genuine citizenship, democracy, pluralism, tolerance and women’s, minority and individual rights are to be protected in post-dictatorship democracies.

That would irreversibly transform the nature of the relationship between the Arab individual and her or his state and society.

That would be a real revolution.

Hussein Ibish, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.

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North Korea struggling to stem connectivity

Is North Korea the latest example of how digital connectivity is enhancing transparency, accountability and democracy?

“The global reach of digital technology has armed the public with tools hard to imagine even a decade ago,” says Empowering Independent Media: U.S. Efforts to Foster a Free Press and an Open Internet Around the World, a report from the Center for International Media Assistance, released this week.

ICT availability is even impacting one of the world’s most repressive and formerly closed regimes, reports suggest.

“When Pyongyang’s latest long-range rocket disintegrated shortly after blast-off in mid-April, North Korea surprised observers with an unusual admission of failure, transmitted across the country on state television. In the past it has simply lied, telling the country that failed launches were successful,” the Financial Times reports:

Brian Myers, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Dongseo university, said Pyongyang had realised it could no longer lie so easily. “The only way to explain the admission is North Koreans’ increased connectedness to outside sources,” he said.

Andrei Lankov, a professor of North Korean studies at Kookmin university in Seoul, said the state had to accept it could no longer monitor everyone, as it could in the days of only a few public phone boxes. “The authorities do their best to eavesdrop but they can hardly digest such a volume of traffic,” he said.Lankov said it would be an exaggeration to say phones were already undermining state security but added that “the potential was there”.

North Korea will forsake “total control” and would shift to a model where “the government makes an example of a select group to try and force the rest of the country to stay in line, like the Chinese do,” says Scott Bruce, a director of the Nautilus Institute, a think-tank that researches the Stalinist state.

Time is not on their side,” said Siegfried Hecker, a US expert on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. “Cell phones are going to get them in the end”.


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Islamism and the Arab Spring: Getting it Right

Though many of the protest movements associated with the Arab Spring appeared to be largely secular in nature, Islamist parties have been winning elections across the region, causing unease and uncertainty both domestically and abroad.  

U.S. policymakers and analysts have been divided thus far in their responses to this turn of events. How should the U.S. deal with the new regimes that bear a distinctly Islamist character? What will be the state of U.S. alliances in the new Middle East and North Africa and how will they affect our core interests in the region? It is critical for Washington to understand the individual groups that are gaining power in the Middle East and North Africa and to define its interests and goals in dealing with these new power holders.  

These questions will be addressed in a Foreign Policy Research Institute Panel Discussion, which will bring together recognized policy and academic expertise to examine these challenges and their implications for U.S. foreign policy. 

Panelists: Michael Doran, The Brookings Institution; Samuel Helfont, Princeton University; Marina Ottaway, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Eric Trager, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Moderator: Tally Helfont, Foreign Policy Research Institute.

May 7, 2012 Registration 1:45; Program 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Reserve Officers Association, One Constitution Avenue, NE, Washington, D.C. RSVP: or register for the webcast cast here 

The Arab Spring: Getting It Right is the theme of this year’s annual conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

Getting It Right I:  Elements of Successful Democratic Transitions

Chair: Daniel Brumberg, Georgetown University

·       Steven Heydemann, U.S. Institute of Peace ·       Jason Gluck, U.S. Institute of Peace ·       Alfred Stepan, Columbia University ·       Laith Kubba, National Endowment for Democracy

The Arab Spring: Regional and Global Impacts

Chair:  Richard Martin, Emory University

·  Religion and the Arab Spring:  Global Context and Implications – Brian Grim, Pew Research Center   ·  Changing Regional Politics – Marc Lynch, George Washington University   ·  A View from Syria – Radwan Ziadeh, Syrian National Council; Carr Center for Human Rights, Harvard University   ·  A View from the Gulf - Caryle Murphy, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars ·  Arab Spring and Its Effects on Regional Alignments - Aylin Unver Noi, Gedik University, Turkey

12:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.         Keynote Luncheon   Future Prospects for Islam & Democracy After The Arab Spring: The Example of Tunisia

Keynote Speakers:  Meherzia Laabidi, Vice-President of the National Constituent Assembly; Zied Daoulatli, Member of the National Constituent Assembly and member of the Executive Committee of al-Nahdha Party; Badreddine Abdelkafi, Member and Deputy President of the National Constituent Assembly, in charge of relations with civil society organizations.

Presentation of the Muslim Democrat of Year Award Rached Ghannouchi  (via video-conference from Tunis)

Getting It Right II:  Islam and Democratic Transitions Chair: Asma Afsaruddin, Indiana University

·   Islam and Democracy in the 21st Century:  Beyond Old Debates – John Voll, Georgetown University   ·   Islam and Democratization in the Context of the Arab Spring  – Jocelyne Cesari, National Defense University ·   Youth Civic Engagement in the Arab Region:  An Analysis of Drivers and Outcomes – Jon Kurtz, Mercy Corps ·   Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Islamic Centrism, and an Emerging Fiqh of Citizenship  – David Warren, University of Manchester .   Ten Promising Trends in the Middle East’s New Human Rights Landscape  – Shadi Mokhtari, American University

Challenges Faced by Specific Countries Chair: Abdulwahab Alkebsi, Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE)

·   Algeria, the Arab Spring, and the Waving of Islamism’s ‘Red Flag’:  Prospects for a Genuine Change in Algeria – Anwar Haddam, Movement for Liberty and Social Justice (Algeria)   ·   Serve or Rule:  Egyptian Security Sector and the Much-Needed Reform  – Marija Marovic, Balkan Center for the Middle East, Serbia   ·   Tunisia’s Economic Challenges – Seth Rau, Tufts University   ·   Post-War Transitions in Syria – Daniel Serwer, Johns Hopkins University 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.         Concluding Keynote

How Can the US and the International Community Support Arab Democracy?

Invited Keynote Speakers: Congressman Keith Ellison First Muslim Representative in Congress; Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy; Senator John Kerry, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Senate; Mohamed Salah Tekaya, Ambassador of Tunisia to the United States.

Thursday, May 3, 2012 Marriott Gateway Crystal City 1700 Jefferson Davis Highway Arlington, Virginia 22202 USA


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Islamists have arrived, but must deliver

Hamas has held secret political talks with five European Union member states, a senior official with the militant Islamist group told The Associated Press today:

If confirmed, such talks would be a sign that the isolation of the Gaza-based Palestinian movement is easing in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings that have brought Islamists to power in parts of the Middle East.

It would also be the latest confirmation that Islamist parties are emerging as a dominant political force, poised to take power as Arab states transition from secular authoritarian rule. But their dominance may be short-lived, analysts suggest, if they are unable to move beyond the banal sloganeering that “Islam is the Solution” to deliver jobs and services to a demanding electorate.

“Islamists were in a way lucky for a while. Excluded from the system, they could only deliver Islamist critiques but never had to shoulder the burden of office, the responsibility to make things work,” says Graham E. Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council:

That has all changed. Islamists are being elected into office and will be assuming the daunting policy problems of their neglected societies. The voting public is excited at the change and will give them a grace period to start improving things. But that period will be limited. Islamists can’t go on winning elections on the basis of pious religious slogans or even anti-Westernism.

“Islamists, too, will eventually be chucked out of office if they can’t deliver the goods,” says Fuller, author of The Future of Political Islam:

“As the spectrum of Islamist politics widens, there will be periods of chaos, learning, and uncertainty,” he contends:

Muslim political behavior in the end is just like that of other groups of people: similar hopes and aspirations, similar angers against oppression, similar hatred of invaders, similar resistance to hegemonic powers. There are no mysteries here. The daily tumultuous unfolding of events shows that Muslim politics are slowly crawling back on the road from the frozen tundra of the autocrats.

“We can easily find truly disturbing commentary and actions by members of the Egyptian Brotherhood, or by the Tunisian Rachid Ghannouchi, the intellectual guru behind the ruling Nahda Party,” writes Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“But we can just as easily find words and deeds that ought to make us consider the possibility that these men are neither Ernest Röhm and his fascist Brownshirts nor even religious versions of secular autocrats,” he argues. “Rather, they are cultural hybrids trying to figure out how to combine the best of the West (material progress and the absence of brutality in daily life) without betraying their faith and pride.”

“What is poorly understood in the West is how critical fundamentalists are to the moral and political rejuvenation of their countries,” says Gerecht, author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East. “As counterintuitive as it seems, they are the key to more democratic, liberal politics in the region.”

In short, Islamist groups will be critical actors in determining the success or failure of the region’s political transitions.

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Needs before rights for Arab youth, but transitional states ‘out of cash’

A year on from the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the youths that led the region’s revolts are placing material needs ahead of political rights, a new survey suggests.

But transitional states are stuck in a “slow and drawn-out economic recovery” that will impede governments’ ability to deliver on those demands, says the International Monetary Fund, and the region’s oil-importing countries will struggle to maintain macroeconomic stability during pronounced political turbulence.

Decent wages and home ownership have displaced “living in a democracy” as the highest priorities for Arab youth, according to the latest Asda’a Burson-Marsteller Survey published today. The popularity of the United States has declined, while China’s appeal as a model of growth and development has risen, the poll suggests.

Receiving a “fair wage” is both the highest collective priority of the 2,500 young people polled – with 82 per cent deeming it “very important” – and the highest individual priority in each of the 12 countries covered in the study, the “most representative and authoritative” survey of the Middle East’s largest demographic. Some two-thirds of the region’s population is under 30.

The percentage of respondents who consider living in a democracy as “very important” declined by 10 percentage points, from 68 per cent in 2011 to 58 per cent today.

While 41% of Arab youth believe the lack of democracy is the biggest obstacle facing the region, the same percentage identifies civil unrest as the main threat. Sixty-three per cent are very concerned about living costs, compared to 41 per cent who are anxious about human rights.

Young Arabs are more politically literate, engaged with digital media and more optimistic about the region’s prospects, despite a widespread conviction that corruption remains rampant.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents believe government is more trustworthy and transparent since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, while 72% say the region is better off today and 68% say they are also personally better off than a year ago.

“You can see the great promise of Arab youth throughout this survey: in the level of engagement in current affairs, in the sophisticated use of technology, and in the tempered expectations for the post-Arab Spring era,” said Jeremy Galbraith, CEO, Burson-Marsteller, Europe, Middle East and Africa.

But political corruption is a growing concern, with 42 per cent – a threefold increase on 2011 – identifying official graft as the region’s biggest challenge.

Youth are more engaged with current affairs, with 52% saying they update themselves on news and political events every day, up from only 18% in 2011.

Use of digital media is increasing, with 61% saying they read or write blogs – the most popular online activity for youth – up from only 29% in 2011. While television remains the primary source of news, with 62% of respondents relying on that source, the percentage has declined from 79% in 2011.

A majority of young people in every country surveyed agreed that traditional values are paramount, but the percentage viewing such values as out of date continues to rise.

The United Arab Emirates is the country where most would like to live and like their own nation to emulate. Some 27% of respondents see the UAE as a model of growth and development, followed by the US and China – each on 19 per cent.

“Lots of governments in the region are implementing reforms and taking steps to be more inclusive, but as social and political inclusion improve, the youth voice is being heard on economic issues like jobs, wages, housing and the cost of living,” said Nader Kabbani, research and policy director at Silatech, a Qatari-funded youth employment project.

“But don’t think that Arab governments can rest on their laurels; the bottom line is the youth still expect political reforms to happen – if governments go back to business as usual, you would see a re-emergence of the Arab spring.”

France is the most popular nation outside the region – 46 per cent of respondents are “very favorable” – followed by Germany (44 per cent), China (41 per cent), UK (34 per cent) and the US (31 per cent). But while China’s favorability rating increased by 14 percentage points, positive views of the US fell by 10 per cent.

“Since 2008, we have been conducting the most representative and authoritative study of the attitudes of young Arabs – polling opinion, analyzing this data and then sharing these important findings with the public, including governments, private-sector firms and civil society groups,” said Sunil John, CEO of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller.

The opinion poll findings are consistent with earlier survey evidence that socio-economic grievances were the primary catalyst for the Arab Spring uprisings.  

“When asked what influenced them to take part in the January 25 protests, 64 percent of Egyptians cited low living standards and unemployment,” whereas only 19 percent specified the lack of democracy and political reform, according to a survey by the International Republican Institute, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

The poll showed “some very practical real-world issues, like the economic situation,” at the top of citizens’ list of concerns, said Scott Mastic, IRI’s Middle East director.

The region’s impatient youth are due to face further frustration as the experience of prior transitions suggests that economic recovery takes two to three years following political volatility, the IMF’s regional director Masood Ahmed said today, while governments will have “less space to be able to offset the impact” of continuing economic stagnation.

“The reason people came out on to the streets is that they felt the economy was not providing enough jobs and opportunities to benefit from growth,” he said, at the launch of its twice yearly regional economic review.

“The modernization of the economy is the real agenda, and is still largely ahead of us, such as raising productivity and creating modern safety nets, rather than un-targeted subsidies, and improving the business environment and providing infrastructure,” he said:

Countries such as Egypt and Tunisia were running out of policy options to battle a “slow and drawn-out economic recovery” as the move from dictatorship to democracy takes longer than expected.

Political transitions weighed on economies in 2011, as gross domestic product growth halved to 2.2 per cent, well below the levels needed to tackle unemployment.

Per-capita incomes also stagnated or contracted across all oil-importing countries except for Morocco.

Surging commodities prices prompted governments to increase spending on wages and subsidies.

Instead of spending $200bn on subsidies that disproportionately benefit the top 20 per cent in society, the region’s governments need to introduce targeted social safety nets to help the poorest.

“Last year was generally a difficult year across the region for the oil-importing countries and at the end of it they face an equally challenging year but less space to be able to offset the impact,” he said.

With 16m unemployed, Arab economies need to create 3-4m jobs a year just to absorb new entrants to the labor market, according to Nasser Saidi, chief economist of the Dubai International Financial Center:

Unemployment remains a key issue for the region, most pressingly for the oil-importers. Tunisia, for example, saw unemployment soar from about 13 per cent in 2010 to 19 per cent in 2011.

If women were to join the labor market at the same level of other emerging economies, the number of jobs needed would rise to 5-6m a year.

Regional economic growth needs to reach 6-7 per cent just to keep unemployment steady by creating jobs for new entrants to the labor market.

“Over 20 years, we need to create 100m jobs, as many as have been created to date since the 1950s,” Saidi argues. ”We need to change the game into a growth-lifting strategy.”

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