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Opinion Briefing: Arab Nations Differ on Uprisings' Upside

Opinion Briefing: Arab Nations Differ on Uprisings' Upside

Countries with revolts optimistic despite hardships

by Dalia Mogahed

This article is part of a series of U.S. Foreign Policy Opinion Briefings aimed at helping to inform U.S. leaders on pressing foreign policy issues.

Quick Summary: Gallup surveys show that Arabs in countries where major revolts did not take place last year largely believe the protests and revolts in the Arab world left the countries involved less safe. Further, they have largely mixed views on these countries' economic prospects and their chances for better governance. These impressions stand in sharp contrast to the brighter futures expected in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, where mass protests or armed revolt toppled heads of state.

Issue at Hand: The next U.S. president will engage a significantly different Middle East from the one President Barack Obama found in 2009. Popular protests and armed uprisings ousted four regimes across North Africa and the Middle East, and Syrian rebels are still fighting to do the same. The future of U.S. relations with new governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen will be a top foreign policy priority for the next president, as will the policy America chooses to take toward the Syrian uprising. Another key unanswered question for the next top U.S. executive is whether other Arabs are likely to rise up -- and what the U.S. response should be if they do.

The Obama Administration's Stance: Obama supported the Arab uprisings to varying degrees, ranging from diplomatic endorsements to military intervention in Libya. Even when it came to close allies such as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the president backed popular calls for change, supporting Egyptians' universal rights over short-term American interests.

However, an increasingly unpredictable Middle East presents serious challenges for the next president. Other publics could rise up against their governments -- peacefully or otherwise. Other governments could fall and be succeeded by new ones that could be hostile or hospitable to U.S. interests. To begin planning for these unknowns, policymakers may wonder whether Arabs view regional uprisings as more help or harm, gauging popular appetite for more upheaval.

Arabs Living Where Major Revolts Did Not Occur More Pessimistic About Safety, Economic Prospects: Algerians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and Jordanians are roughly twice as likely as those living in countries where major uprisings occurred to believe safety and economic prospects in those countries will get worse rather than better. Jordanians are the most pessimistic of all groups surveyed, with at least six in 10 expecting the security situation and economic prospects in these countries to get worse.

As a result of the recent protests and revolts in the Arab world, will each of the following get better or get worse in these countries? Security and safety

As a result of the recent protests and revolts in the Arab world, will each of the following get better or get worse in these countries? Economic prospects

Despite their current hardships, most Tunisians, Yemenis, Libyans, and Egyptians say the upheaval in the Arab world will ultimately produce a safer and more prosperous future for their countries. Though other Gallup data show many now struggle to meet basic needs, strong majorities in each country -- particularly in Libya -- expect the uprisings to yield future economic improvements. Most also expect their revolutions to eventually usher in greater security, though many felt less safe in 2011 than in 2010.

A different picture emerges among the Arab states where major uprisings have not occurred. While Moroccans and Algerians are more split on the prospects of a safer future in Arab uprisings countries, the majority of Jordanians (68%) expect security in those countries to worsen. Their views on the uprisings' economic effects follow a similar pattern.

Iraq is unique in that it underwent its own regime change in 2003, albeit as a result of foreign intervention and not popular uprising. Iraqis are more optimistic about the impact of the Arab uprisings for those countries than those who have not experienced political upheaval, but are less positive than 2011's revolutionary publics, perhaps reflecting Iraqis' own mixed feelings about their country's rocky path since U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein.

Arabs on the Sidelines of Uprisings Doubt Revolts Will Bring Better Governance: Sizable percentages of Arabs in countries where uprisings did not occur see prospects for better governance in those countries getting worse. Again, Jordanians are the most pessimistic, with 60% seeing dwindling chances for good governance. This is in contrast to most of their revolutionary counterparts in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia, who expect better performance from their political leaders, a central demand of the Arab uprisings.

As a result of the recent protests and revolts in the Arab world, will each of the following get better or get worse in these countries? Governance

Arabs in Countries Without Revolts Are Less Confident Uprisings Are People-Powered: Whereas majorities of Libyans, Egyptians, Yemenis, and Tunisians say the Arab world's protests and revolts mostly resulted from people's true desire for change rather than from foreign influences, other Arabs are less certain. Notably, Libyans are the most likely to say the Arab uprisings were locally driven though foreign troops helped overthrow their former regime. This may be because of the strong support Libyans had for the NATO intervention, suggesting most saw it as a response to a call for help and not foreign aggression.

Outside the revolutionary countries, there is no consensus regarding the driving force behind the political unrest, with many expressing doubt that the upheaval in the region was just the result of people's desire for change.

In your opinion, are recent protests in the Arab world the result of the people's true desire for change or mostly the result of foreign influences?

Policy Implications: People in countries not directly touched by the so-called "Arab Spring" are pessimistic about the impact of regional unrest on those countries and unsure about its roots, suggesting little appetite for political instability in their own countries. The rising death toll in Syria will probably only increase this aversion, making a new revolt in the Middle East less likely. Instead, reformers in these places will likely continue to push for gradual change. The more they succeed in improving the lives of their citizens through the established political process, the more stable these countries will remain.

Those in countries that underwent revolts, on the other hand, expect a brighter economic and political future as a result. These revolutionary publics also largely believe they drove the change that toppled their former leaders, suggesting a greater sense of empowerment as active participants in the affairs of their country. If leaders don't live up to these high aspirations, they may face more severe consequences than they would have before the revolts, when people expected much less.

If these countries in transition grow into prosperous democracies, they will help stabilize the region and stand as models for good governance. If they fail to meet their people's rising expectations, even greater regional instability may be in store for the next U.S. president. The success of these new governments is therefore critical to U.S. interests, as well as to the interests of these republics. The next administration would do well to continue to engage their elected counterparts in post-revolutionary Arab countries toward this common goal.

For complete data sets or custom research from the more than 150 countries Gallup continually surveys, please contact us.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with 9,000 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted March 7 to April 4, 2012, in Libya; March 4-10 and April 8-15, 2012, in Egypt; March 1-14, 2012, in Tunisia; Feb. 28 to March 8, 2012, in Yemen; March 2-25, 2012, in the Palestinian Territories; March 8-27, 2012, in Iraq; May 2-19, 2012, in Jordan; March 7 to April 1, 2012, in Morocco; and March 19-30, 2012, in Algeria.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error ranged from a low of ±3 percentage points to a high of ±4 percentage points. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls. All samples were nationally representative except in Libya, where the following areas were excluded for security reasons: Surt, Al-Jabal Al-Gharbi, Al-Jufrah, An-Nuqat al-Khams, Ghat, Marzuq, Nalut, Wadi al-Hayat, Wadi ash-Shati, and Sabha. Excluded areas represent approximately 20% of the population.

For more complete methodology and specific survey dates, please review Gallup's Country Data Set details.

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