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Arab Spring: Hopes for democracy spring eternal

By MARCELLA S. KREITER, United Press International   |   July 15, 2012 at 5:01 AM   |   Comments

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CHICAGO, July 15 (UPI) -- In an area of the world known for autocratic regimes, military hegemony and brutal dictators, yearnings for democracy have been stirring for more than a year -- but only for certain aspects.

The Pew Research Center released its Global Attitudes Project findings last week, concluding economic concerns top political aspirations in the Arab world and other Muslim countries. Those pushing for democratic reforms want to see religion play a greater role in public life, multiple parties from which to choose leaders and less repression.

When it comes to democracy, the public does "not just support the general notion of democracy -- they also embrace specific features of a democratic system, such as competitive elections and free speech," the Pew report said.

The so-called "Arab Spring" began in early 2011 with a self-immolation in Tunisia that sparked protests leading to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The next to fall was Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, followed by Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh. Now Syria's Bashar Assad is on the hot seat.

Pew conducted its survey in Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Pakistan as part of the wider Global Attitudes Project.

Ironically, Pew found just 37 percent believe the United States and 10 percent believe Israel really want democracy to take hold in the Middle East.

"Despite the tumult and uncertainty of the last year, views about democracy are mostly unchanged since 2011, although support has declined somewhat in Jordan. Enthusiasm for democracy tends to be generally less intense in Jordan and in Pakistan. It is consistently strong in Lebanon and Turkey," Pew found.

"While democratic rights and institutions are popular, they are clearly not the only priorities in the six Muslim-majority nations surveyed. In particular, the economy is a top concern. And if they had to choose, most Jordanians, Tunisians and Pakistanis would rather have a strong economy than a good democracy. Turks and Lebanese, on the other hand, would prefer democracy. Egyptians are divided."

In Pakistan, those queried "express the least enthusiasm for the idea of democracy, with just 42 percent saying it is preferable. Still, only 17 percent believe other approaches are sometimes better while 22 percent say it does not matter," Pew said.

Overall, just 31 percent said they think they should rely on democracy and 61 percent said they prefer "a leader with a strong hand," up 11 points from last year.

"There is also a strong desire for Islam to play a major role in the public life of these nations, and most want Islam to have at least some influence on their country's laws. Majorities in Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt believe laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Koran, while most Tunisians and a 44 percent-plurality of Turks want laws to be influenced by the values and principles of Islam, but not strictly follow the Koran," Pew said.

Support for laws based on the Koran was weaker among the young in Egypt and Lebanon, with only 54 percent of those younger than 30 supporting such laws compared to 68 percent among their elders. An 11-point spread was found in Jordan.

Women's rights also are an issue with majorities in all six countries saying they believe in equal rights. However, support of gender parity in politics, economics and family life is weaker.

In Tunisia, the public appears to be getting discouraged. Though Tunisians embrace their young democracy, they disagree on whether ousting Ben Ali has left them better off but still hope things will improve in the next year. Seventy-eight percent said they are dissatisfied with the way things are going and 83 percent described economic conditions as bad. Still, a majority said they preferred democracy to autocracy "even if that means some risk of instability," Pew said.

Some 70 percent of those surveyed in Pakistan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan had negative views of their respective economies. The exception was Turkey where 57 percent of those queried said the economy is in good shape.

When it comes to Islam, support for the role of religion appears to be growing.

In Tunisia where the Islamist Ennahda party dominated parliamentary voting, 85 percent of those queried said Islam should play a major role while in Egypt, with the recent victory by the Muslim Brotherhood, 66 percent expressed support for religion in government, an increase from 47 percent in 2010.

The attitude also is growing in Pakistan. In Turkey and Lebanon, 60 percent and 75 percent, respectively, said religion already plays a major role in politics.

Jordan was the exception. Only 31 percent said Islam plays and major role.

Despite the perception in the West that extremists are in control, those queried expressed only limited support for such factions and were largely split along sectarian lines while majorities expressed worry about extremists.

The Lebanese group Hezbollah had the highest overall ratings, finding significant support in Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt, with support as high as 94 percent among fellow Shiites. Al-Qaida and the Taliban, however, garner just 20 percent support.

The survey found Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and their leaders, receive largely favorable ratings while opinions about Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are largely negative, except in Pakistan and among Shiites.

Syria's Assad received negative ratings from 70 percent of those queried in Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey while the 36 percent of Pakistanis who said they are familiar with Assad largely support him. The survey, however, was taken before a May 25 massacre in Houla and subsequent atrocities in Syria.

Pew conducted 1,000 face-to-face interviews in each of the countries March 19 to April 20 and pegged the sampling error from 3.9 points to 5.2 points, with 95 percent confidence.

The survey can be found at http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/07/10/most-muslims-want-democracy-personal-freedoms-and-islam-in-political-life/.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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