By Rami G. Khouri
BEIRUT — The most extensive regular poll of Arab public opinion that was released Monday in Doha, Qatar, provides timely new insights into the sentiments and values of men and women across the Arab world on issues such as the “Islamic State” (ISIS), the Arab uprisings and the role of foreign powers in the region. The immense value of such knowledge begs the question of whether any of the leading forces that now engage in military and diplomatic battles to shape the future of our region actually take into consideration the views of the beleaguered Arab citizens whose lives are most impacted.
The voices of ordinary citizens seem largely absent from events in both war-ravaged states like Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, and other countries that do not suffer active warfare, terrorism, and ethno-nationalist violence, like the Gulf states, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. This almost absolute absence of linkages between citizen sentiments and state policies is one of the major reasons for the uprisings that erupted five years ago and persist today.
Military, political, and diplomatic activity in our region today is shaped by uniformly non-democratic and unaccountable Arab governments, many of which actively make war in neighboring Arab states; local armed parties and smaller militias with assorted religious, ethnic, ideological, and tribal identities, some of which (as in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen) are stronger than their governments; foreign and Arab governments that wage warfare at will inside half a dozen Arab countries; and, some United Nations and other officials who seek to mediate diplomatic agreements to restore order and national integrity in broken lands, like Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
These dominant players operate within an orbit of narrow local and national elites that has changed very little since the retreating European powers tapped into many of these same groups to create new countries around 1920. Public opinion surveys across the Arab world allow us to penetrate beyond these narrow elites, and know precisely how masses of ordinary people feel about important issues of the day, and what they seek in their future.
The 2015 Arab Opinion Index that was released this week by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies is the largest public opinion poll of its kind in the Arab world (18,311 face-to-face interviews in 12 Arab countries, representing around 90 percent of the entire Arab population, with a margin of error of 2-3 percent). This fourth consecutive survey since 2011 confirms again that Arabs overwhelmingly oppose ISIS, with 89 percent of respondents viewing it negatively, and just seven percent positively. More important, there is no significant correlation between support for ISIS and religiosity, since “favorable views of ISIS are equally prevalent among respondents who are ‘very religious’ and those who are ‘not religious’, and also equally prevalent amongst opponents and supporters of the separation of religion from the state.”
This supports the view —widely ignored in the West — that political and socio-economic grievances, rather than religious sentiments, explain most of the support that exists for radical extremist organizations like ISIS. No consensus exists on how best to fight ISIS, but it is fascinating that the most effective means mentioned are: supporting democratic transition in the region (28%); resolving the Palestinian issue (18%); ending foreign intervention (14%); intensifying the military campaign against ISIS (14%); and, solving the Syrian crisis in line with the aspirations of the Syrian people (12%).
A solid majority of 62 percent of the Arab public sees a change in the Syrian regime as part of ending the Syria crisis, indicating, “sympathy to the aims and objectives of the Syrian revolution.”
Yet Arabs broadly are concerned about how the original Arab uprisings allowed the region to plunge into civil wars, instability, and state fragmentation, including foreign military involvement. Just 34 percent are positive on how the Arab revolutions have turned out, and 59 percent are negative. But only 5 percent of those with negative views generally oppose the revolutions; 48 percent feel the Arab revolutions face a series of challenges and obstacles, but will ultimately succeed in achieving their aims. One-third of respondent feel the uprisings are over and the old regimes have returned to power.
Dr. Mohammad Almasri, Coordinator of the Arab Opinion Index, notes that Arab citizens have lost confidence in all political movements whether Islamist or secular/nationalist, partly due to, “the discord and disarray among Arab political movements and the partisanship and conflicts between them.”
He found that 57 percent of respondents fear Islamist political movements, while 61 percent fear secular movements. This lack of consensus between these two broad categories of political movements, Almasri says, “can be exploited by anti-democratic forces to agitate for a return to authoritarianism, and will therefore prove to be an obstacle on the path to democratization.”
Those people in our region and abroad who seek real insights into Arab people’s views and values, rather than the fantasy and racism that define much of the public discussion of our region, would do well to read more about these findings on the website of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri.