Yearning for change

There is an urgent need for reform in the Arab world. That’s the simple verdict of a survey conducted recently by Arabian Business and respected opinion pollsters YouGov, which shows that a wide spectrum of Arabs yearn for change in their region.

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By  By Massoud Derhally Published  October 9, 2005

Yearning for change|~|200-Ugov.jpg|~|UPSURGE: A Lebanese demonstrator shouts during an anti-Syrian rally in March.|~|There is an urgent need for reform in the Arab world. That’s the simple verdict of a survey conducted recently by Arabian Business and respected opinion pollsters YouGov, which shows that a wide spectrum of Arabs yearn for change in their region. The research, conducted between August 16 and September 15, dealt with a cross sample of society from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) with a representative number of respondents from 17 different countries. A resounding 55% of respondents in the survey said political leaders in the Arab world are “mostly corrupt politicians, who destabilise the region, but that there were a few honest individuals who want to do the right thing for their countries and the region”. Another 16% said leaders “are mostly corrupt and tend to destabilise the region”. Only 1% of those polled believed all leaders are “honest”. Paul Salem — a prominent Lebanese political analyst and a former professor at the American University of Beirut — says he is not all that surprised by the poll's findings. “All of the Arab governments, with the possible exception of Lebanon, do not have democratic forms of holding leaders accountable,” says Salem. “The leaders are there permanently for life either as a family or as a group, party or military and the people cannot remove them through elections. Some countries are introducing elections, but those are for parliament or lower councils that do not really affect the leadership,” he adds. The results of the poll also suggest that a transformation in the political processes of countries across the region must take place — one that will bring about genuine developments, allow for a greater degree of pluralism, an increased level of freedom and more equality. Salem says people in the region have increasingly become jaded with leaders that they see as impotent and unable to fulfil their aspirations. “Over time there has developed a negative relationship and one of distrust because the people feel they can’t do anything. It’s not necessarily that 99% of rulers are corrupt, but there is a sense that there is a lot of corruption and certainly there is a huge amount [of it] in Arab governments,” says Salem. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leading Egyptian pro-democracy activist, agrees. He is a professor of Political Sociology at the American University in Cairo, and gained global attention after being imprisoned at a trial Amnesty International says was designed purely to punish him for his human rights activism. “Much of the public opinion in the Arab world has been assumed to think negatively of its own leaders. What we have here is a confirmation of the overall impression that has been floating around for years. Since the days of [Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser and [Saudi King] Faisal, Arab leaders have not fared very well — domestically, regionally or internationally,” says Ibrahim. Low voter turnout in countries where elections have been held recently also reflects this negative sentiment, he adds. “In the case of Egypt, at the last presidential election, 82% of the voters stayed home, which comes very close to the percentage of your poll that thought the leaders were not honest,” says Ibrahim. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, US president George W. Bush and other Western leaders have persistently mentioned the word ‘reform’ in meetings with Arab politicians — a fact that has probably made many uneasy. But the survey reveals that the overarching issues Arabs are concerned with largely pertain to social and political reform in their countries. The majority of respondents believed certain measures must take place in order for their to be a credible improvement in their lives. Wider political participation and more democracy were issues that 69% of respondents viewed as important. Some 65% believed economic liberalisation was also important and 60% said they wanted lower state control over the individual. Women should have more equal rights, according to 48% of those polled. “Those are very important results. You are getting into the details of reform and beyond the point that yes, people want democracy, which is a vague word. The results show a liberal outlook [of] most of your respondents,” explains Salem. “It shows that, unlike what some people say, Arab people are not very different from any other people around the world. They want pretty much the same things — a decent life, to be left alone, a good economy, equality and justice,” he adds. Also worth noting was that the percentage of men that said that women should have more rights was twice as high as that of female respondents. Dr. Mai Yamani, a Saudi academic and research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, says the main reason Arabs want their governments to reform is that other parts of the world have an experienced a renaissance of one form or other. The Arab world, meanwhile, has remained static. “The rest of the world is moving on and we are stuck. The real problem lies in the rulers and their inability to reform their systems. Secondly, I think it is the US’ policies. Despite the fact they talk about democracy, and that they want reforms in the region, they are consistently supporting the dictators there because they are afraid of destabilising a country or the region,” says Yamani. There is also what many observers term the ‘oil curse’, where oil producing nations refrain from carrying through on their reform agendas once they realise the windfalls they can reap — especially in recent years with oil prices hovering above US$70 a barrel. “If you take countries like Saudi Arabia, instead of really going into serious reform they used the old method of paying off people and increasing salaries. We haven’t seen any social revolutions in the region. That is a big question,” explains Yamani. Yamani also believes one of the motivations for change, if it is to come, will be from the “technologies of globalisation”, rather than from US or Arab leaders. “We have to build civil societies … I don’t know if this idea of gradual change is going to work because [governments] are repressing so many people and increasing the chance of violence. The more we wait then we get into violence and more violent ideas develop,” says Yamani. Reporters Without Borders, a pressure group which annually publishes a worldwide index of press freedom, has previously criticised MENA countries for limiting freedom of expression and for unnecessarily prosecuting journalists. According to Freedom House, a non-profit organisation promoting democracy around the world, the region continues to show the lowest ratings of freedom in the world, with only 5% of countries rated as free, 11% rated partly free, and 84% rated not free. In our survey, those polled were asked if they were satisfied with the levels of freedom available in their respective countries. Approximately 53% of respondents said they were unhappy, 42% said they were content and 5% had no opinion. In a bid to judge whether Arab participants link a secular state system with democracy, respondents were also asked if they believed an Islamic state could also sit alongside a Western-style of democracy. A definitive 83% of respondents said they believed a state could be both Islamic and democratic. Only 9% disagreed. Some 67% of respondents also said they didn’t believe there is a conflict between religion and a democratic governing system and that “it is possible to be a true follower of Islam and support a Western-style democracy.” Only 17% disagreed. “Democracy is based on freedom and very extensive freedom, which includes freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom to believe in religion or freedom not to believe in religion, but if you are really religious you might not give people that freedom, whereas democracy is based on total freedom,” comments Salem. Some 36% of respondents said “religion should be considered equally with the wishes of the people, the needs of the economy and other factors in the government of a country”, whereas 30% said it was the most important aspect and 8% said it should be considered only after the wishes of the people, the needs of the economy and other factors in the government of a country. Nearly 21% said religion should play no part in the government. “The simple [interpretation] is that religion is very important. Islam certainly could be part of a democratic system and there is much in Islam which is democratic in the sense of shoura, equality, and justice,” says Salem. “It has a kind of a constitutional spirit to it. The law is most important. There is a lot that is compatible. At the same time, there are things that are interpreted in certain ways that would be not compatible, but that really depends on how you interpret it, and how you try to implement it and which way you push your interpretation of Islam,” adds Salem. The war in Iraq has also been a point of contention between the Arab world and the US. The invasion of the country and ongoing violence has heightened anti-American sentiment in the region — as has the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land by Israel, and the unflinching support of the US for the Jewish state. Of those polled, 57% said they distrust the US a lot and 19% said they distrust it a little. “That is not surprising with these last two years with Iraq and the way the Bush administration has done the war in Iraq,” says Salem. “[The US] could have done it very differently. He made enemies and the reasons he gave for going in were not true and a lot of people are being killed in Iraq.” As for Iraq’s future, there is some concern over where the country is heading — 59% said Iraq is not becoming a democracy while 19% said it was. “Very few people can see how this is going to develop into a normal functioning democratic system and because the US is involved and people are suspicious of the US,” says Salem. Ibrahim, meanwhile, believes cynical views of the situation in Iraq have been shaped by the “total brainwashing that the Arab media has been engaged in”. “There is a lot of Sunni bias in the media coverage and fear of Shiites, when it comes to Iraq,” he says. Roughly 71% of those polled believed it would be a good thing if Iraq became a democracy. According to analysts, this view is also representative of that of the vast majority of Arabs — who want to see democracy take root in the region. They believe if it is successful, then Iraq would put the onus on other leaders to follow suit. “If we all see Iraq as a democracy then that will have a big impact on the neighbouring countries,” says Yamani. “In Saudi they will have to look at the minorities. They would have look at representations and [giving] more space to different groups. If Iraq has signs of regaining its economic position it will have an impact on the neighbouring countries.” Though such an eventuality may not look plausible at the moment, analysts point to the revolution in Iran in the late 1970s and the reverberations it had in the region as a precedent. “There was a domino effect,” says Yamani. “The change that took place in Saudi Arabia unfortunately, as to the competition of who is a Muslim, started. In Saudi Arabia, it emboldened some of the clerics to say ‘why do we need the princes?’ [And] that we can have an Islamic state. So they had to give them more rights. That made the country more Islamic. At the same time, the Shiites started their intifada in the eastern province in 1979,” she explains.||**||

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