By Dr James J Zogby
19 January, 2012
Listening and learning
I listened attentively to Syrian President Bashar al Assad's most recent speech in which he berated the Arab League's intervention to help stem the violence currently racking his country. Claiming that he was listening to his countrymen and speaking for them and that his regime was the standard-bearer of "Arabism,” al Assad denounced the League as not representing true Arab sentiment. For obvious reasons our institute can't poll in Syria right now, but as the past ten months of mass protests have made clear, al Assad may speak for some, but certainly not all, Syrians.
On the other hand, we have polled about Syria across the Arab World, and what we find is that it is al Assad who is out of touch with the reality of Arab opinion or, as he might put it, "the beating heart of Arabism.” In every country surveyed, including Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, we learn that overwhelming majorities of Arabs side with the Syrian demonstrators and say that it is time for the al Assad government to step down.
I love polling because it erases doubt as to what people are really thinking. I call it the "respectful science.” You ask, they answer. Responses get organised by age, gender, education level attained, income, region, and more. When you present the results, it is as if you've opened a window, letting in the voices of a society.
I'm in the United Arab Emirates right now, teaching a short course on the importance of public opinion at New York University's Abu Dhabi campus. Looking at the most recent polling we have done across the Middle East and North Africa makes clear some of the problems facing this region while providing keys to solutions for some of the big issues, as well.
It is not only in Syria that we need to listen and learn. When we go next door to Iraq, where we see the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki making a power grab, exacerbating the risk of internal civil conflict, we find strong majorities deeply worried about the future of their country, rejecting division and favouring instead a government that can create jobs, end corruption, and provide the stability and basic services needed for all Iraqis to lead their lives.
While Iran's leadership is busy provocatively and aggressively playing their nuclear card, our polling there reveals that the democracy movement remains strong among Iranians. All across the country, the top priority concerns, in addition to employment, are democracy, civil and personal rights, political reform, and an end to corruption.
At the same time, polling in the Arab World also offers a cautionary warning to the West's strategy to confront Iran's leaders. While it is true that Iran's favourable ratings among Arabs have plummeted and are now less than one half of what they were just five years ago, should the West or Israel attack Iran, all bets are off. Since the only countries with significantly lower favourable ratings than Iran in the Arab region are the US and Israel, the best way to resurrect Iran's ratings would be for the US or Israel to attack it.
While we are looking at the US, it too needs to listen better to Arab opinion. America's favourable ratings among Arabs, which were at dangerously low levels during the Bush Administration, got a boost from the change in policy expected by the election of Barack Obama. Three years later, US favourable ratings are lower than they were in 2008, as Arabs see no change in how America relates to the issue they still see as central to their relationship with the West – that is, the unresolved matter of Palestinian freedom.
Israel, too, should listen, but given that country's hard-line direction, they have become increasingly tone deaf to Arab and world opinion. Our polls show that the Arab public still supports the Arab League's peace initiative for a two state solution, but a majority of Arabs in every country no longer believe that Israel has any interest in making peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu's behaviour and US acquiescence to Israel's policies are radicalising Arab opinion creating a more volatile environment with every passing day.
We have also polled in the two Arab countries where uprisings brought down governments, creating the possibility for change. But those who have been newly elected in Tunisia and Egypt must now pay attention to what the voices of their countrymen are saying. In both countries, the number one concern is expanding employment. While Tunisians also want an expansion of democracy, and "increasing women's rights" is high up on their list of political priorities, Egyptians are more focused on the basic needs of life and "ending corruption.” The success or failure of these "revolutions" will be measured by their ability to meet the expectations that inspired them.
Listening to opinion is also critical for other governments in the region. In Saudi Arabia, for example, far and away the number one concern is the need to expand employment. With a "youth bulge" necessitating the creation of three million new jobs over the next decade, Saudis want to know that their children will be educated and find meaningful work in their country. And in our surveys of business leaders in the Gulf region we find a growing concern that opportunities be created to support private sector economic growth, so that small businesses can become the engine driving this needed job creation.
As I explain in my recent book "Arab Voices: What they Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters" and now in my NYU course, Arab opinion matters. It clearly matters to the West which has long ignored Arab sentiment. But the views of the public matter within the region as well. The sooner leaders, East and West, listen and learn, the sooner real change can occur.
The writer is President of the Arab-American Institute.
Source: Pakistan Today