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The Arab Spring Effect

Nine months into the “Arab Spring”, we surveyed public opinion in seven Arab countries and Iran, asking over 6,000 respondents about their primary political concerns and their degree of satisfaction with the pace of change taking place in their countries. What we found was that an “Arab Spring” effect had occurred, with reform and rights issues now being perceived as political priorities in most countries. The polls were conducted by Zogby Research Services and jzanalytics in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iran. They had a margin of error of between ±3.1 per cent (in Egypt) to ±4.5 per cent (in Lebanon).

The results varied from country to country, providing an important look into the unique set of concerns confronting each. We have conducted similar surveys every other year since 2001, and the differences that could be discerned between the 2011 poll and those that preceded it were noteworthy.

In 2009, for example, in most countries the “bread and butter” issues of “expanding employment opportunities”, “improving the healthcare system,” and “improving the educational system”, ranked among the top four concerns of most respondents. Their rank order would vary from country to country, but these were the basic priorities of a majority of Arabs. Also in the mix of top concerns would be issues of particular concern to the country in question. “Ending corruption and nepotism,” for example, was a major issue in Egypt; while in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE “resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” scored high. More political concerns, involving personal rights, reform and democracy almost never made it into the top tier of priority concerns.

What is striking, however, in this most recent poll was the “Arab Spring” effect that is at work across the Middle East and North Africa. “Expanding employment” is still the number one concern in every Arab country, with the exception of the UAE. But there are now other issues that are looming large across the political landscape. “Ending corruption and nepotism” is now a major concern in four of the seven Arab countries. And in most countries, issues like “political reform,” “advancing democracy,” and “protecting personal and civil rights” have broken into the top tier of concerns in almost every country.

It may be interesting to note that the one country where virtually no change occurred was in Egypt, where the top four issues of 2009 (employment, education, healthcare and corruption) remain the top four concerns of 2011, albeit in a slightly different order. It appears that the Egyptian revolt had less to do with politics and more to do with people’s basic needs. Most Egyptians want a non- corrupt government that could provide for the basic needs of life (a job, healthcare and education). It is in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and UAE that the political issues of “reform” and “rights” broke through.

Meanwhile, it is important to note that the results in Iran show us a political “basket case”. With the exception of employment, which is the number one issue in that country, the rest of the top tier priority concerns are all democracy-related concerns.

It is also worth noting that the only countries where advancing women’s rights are a prominent concern are in Tunisia and the UAE. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a top concern in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and UAE. And while combating terrorism and extremism is a significant concern in five of the seven Arab countries, it is dead last in Iran.

How do Arabs and Iranians judge the performance of their governments? Not surprisingly, the highest satisfaction rates come in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This has historically been the case, and despite the new sets of issues being raised it appears that nothing has diminished the sense in both of these Gulf countries that things are on the “right track”. More worrisome are the low satisfaction levels in Lebanon and Iraq, and Iran, where significant majorities are dissatisfied with the pace of change and see their countries on the “wrong track”.

While the fundamentals remain the same — people will want jobs, the ability to raise and provide for their families, be educated and have the chance to advance, and receive healthcare when they need it — there can be no doubt that the “Arab Spring” has introduced a new vocabulary and new concerns into the Arab political discourse. How governments respond to these new concerns in the years to come will be important to watch.

James Zogby  is president of the Arab American Institute.

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