The Arab Spring may seem like a distant memory, but a new report by a team of Arab and American analysts argues that across the Middle East people still feel the same yearning for better governance and rule of law that motivated protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The persistence of this vision of more modern and just government is important to remember, especially at a time when the Trump administration is so focused on the threatening image of Islamist extremism. The study is a reminder that most residents of Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East want the same things that Americans do – justice, dignity, freedom and prosperity.
It was six years ago this month that protesters toppled the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which marked the zenith of the Arab uprising. Since then, the trends have mostly been disastrous for the Arabs, with civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen and the rise of the hyper-violent Daesh (ISIS).
Despite these reversals, Arabs still embrace an agenda of better governance, according to the report, titled “Arab Fractures: Citizens, States, and Social Contracts,” which was published last week by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The lead author was Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister. He was joined by three other Arabs and three Americans.
In a survey of 103 prominent Arabs conducted for the study, authoritarianism and corruption were cited as among the region’s top two problems, identified by 65 and 48 of the respondents, respectively. These problems of governance were seen as more important than terrorism, sectarian strife or other security issues.
“Six years into the Arab uprisings, most Arab states are still facing a crisis in governance,” the report argues. That includes most of the region’s monarchies, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which have been more stable than their neighbors but whose subjects still hunger for a more open and dynamic political life.
The report draws on a survey called the “Arab Barometer,” conducted biennially since 2006 in 15 Arab countries by Princeton University, the University of Michigan and a group called the Arab Reform Initiative. The findings illustrate the desire among Arabs for better, freer political systems. In the latest installment, conducted last year, corruption and the economy were identified as the top two problems.
Respondents were surprisingly frank. A question asking people if there was “some or a lot” of corruption in their governments got a positive response from 90 percent of Tunisians, 84 percent of Egyptians and Algerians, 83 percent of Palestinians, 76 percent of Moroccans and 63 percent of Jordanians.
The internet has transformed the Arab world more than most Westerners realize. According to the Carnegie study, Arabs average more than five hours a day online. Saudis in 2014 were the highest per-capita watchers of YouTube videos globally, with over 90 million a day collectively, and had the world’s highest Twitter penetration rate, at 33 percent. In 2014, 17 million tweets a day originated in the Arab world.
Thanks to the internet, citizens feel connected to each other and the outside world. They want human rights – including the right to criticize their governments. Surprisingly, according to the 2016 Arab Barometer, two-thirds of those surveyed thought they could criticize their governments without fear.
This passion for better governance matters because it comes amid such a desolate landscape. The report notes: “It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the catastrophe” that has befallen the Arab world since February 2011. As of 2015, more than 143 million Arabs were living in countries afflicted by war or occupation. While Arabs are only 5 percent of the world’s population, they make up half its refugees, the study notes.
The study blames the persistence of police-state tactics in much of the Arab world for slow political development, arguing: “The predominance of the security sectors and armed forces in Arab states has contributed significantly to the region’s current political and governance crises.”
The study builds on the landmark 2002 Arab Human Development Report, prepared by independent Arab researchers for the United Nations Development Program. That study identified “profound deficits in political freedoms, education and women’s empowerment,” the new Carnegie study notes. “Yet nearly 15 years later, all three challenges remain and new challenges have emerged.”
The path toward better governance must be anchored in a respect for pluralism, argues Muasher in a concluding chapter. A “suffocating uniformity” has contributed to “the stagnation of Arab societies.” This self-critique by prominent Arab analysts provides a baseline for change.
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 08, 2017, on page 7.