[OPINION] What do Arabs want?

January 05, 2012, Thursday/ 15:53:00

CAIRO -- The self-immolation a year ago of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi triggered a wave of popular protests that spread across the Arab world, forcing out dictators in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, too, seems near the end of his rule.

Together, these movements for change have come to be known as the Arab Spring. But what values are driving these movements, and what kind of change do their adherents want? A series of surveys in the Arab world last summer highlights some significant shifts in public opinion.

In surveys, 84 percent of Egyptians and 66 percent of Lebanese regarded democracy and economic prosperity as the Arab Spring's goal. In both countries, only about 9 percent believed that these movements aimed to establish an Islamic government.

For Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where trend data are available, the Arab Spring reflected a significant shift in people's values concerning national identity. In 2001, only 8 percent of Egyptians defined themselves as Egyptians above all, while 81 percent defined themselves as Muslims. In 2007, the results were roughly the same.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, however, these numbers changed dramatically: Those defining themselves as Egyptians rose to 50 percent, 2 percent more than those who defined themselves as Muslims. Among Iraqis, primary self-identification in national terms jumped from 23 percent of respondents in 2004 to 57 percent in 2011. Among Saudis, the figure jumped from 17 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2011, while the share of those claiming a primary Muslim identity dropped from 75 percent to 44 percent.

There has also been a shift toward secular politics and weakening support for sharia (Islamic religious law). Among Iraqis, the percentage of those who agreed that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated increased from 50 percent in 2004 to almost 70 percent in 2011. Similar data are not available for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but both countries show a decline in support for sharia. In Egypt, those considering it “very important” for government to implement sharia declined from 48 percent in 2001 to 28 percent in 2011. For Saudis, the figure fell from 69 percent in 2003 to 31 percent in 2011.

Finally, an analysis of a nationally representative sample of 3,500 Egyptian adults, who rated their participation in the anti-Mubarak movement, showed that participants were more likely to be younger single males with higher socioeconomic status, users of the Internet, newspaper readers, urban residents and believers in modern values and free will. They did not mind having Americans, British or French as neighbors. Religiosity did not predict participation, while religious intolerance reduced participation.

These figures seem at odds with the results of Egypt's recent parliamentary election in which the Muslim Brothers and the Salafi fundamentalists together gained about 65 percent of the popular vote. It remains true that religion is an important factor for Egyptian voters, as 66 percent of those surveyed “strongly agree” or “agree” that it would be better if people with strong religious belief held public office; and 57 percent consider a government's implementation of sharia “very important” or “important.” Nonetheless, nationalism trumps religion. Fully 78 percent agreed with the statement that it would be better if more people with a strong commitment to national interests rather than with strong religious views held public office.

How, then, to explain the inconsistency between the survey data and Egypt's election results? First, the fundamentalists benefited from years of political organizing and activism and thus were better able to mobilize their supporters, whereas the liberals, who led the uprising against the former regime, lacked nationwide organization and had little time to translate their newly acquired political capital into votes.

Second, the liberals' priorities were misplaced. Instead of pushing their agenda forward among Egyptians, they focused on the wrong enemy, spending invaluable time organizing rallies against the army.

Finally, the election outcome is not as bad as it appears. Liberalism has been under continuous attack for decades from religious extremists and religious institutions, and liberal organizations were stifled by oppressive rules. If the Mubarak regime had fallen under the banner of political Islam, Muslim fundamentalists would have been in a much better position to advance more exclusivist claims over the revolution and the country.

But it was the liberals who delivered Egypt from authoritarianism. This, in turn, brought legitimacy to liberalism and generated the powerful feeling of nationalist awareness among Egyptians. As a result, support for sharia declined and national identity soared. Insofar as political discourse is focused on national rebuilding and freedom, Islamic fundamentalists, in Egypt and elsewhere, will face an uphill battle.

*Mansour Moaddel is professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University and has been the principle investigator of several cross-national values surveys carried out in the Middle East between 2001 and 2011. © Project Syndicate 2012.

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