A new language of politics, but same economic priorities

New survey data shows that "bread and butter" issues are still the Arab world's top priority - but the issues of the Arab Spring have moved up sharply in public concern.

Nine months into the "Arab Spring", we surveyed public opinion in seven Arab countries and Iran, asking over 6,000 respondents about their main political concerns and their degree of satisfaction with the pace of change taking place in their countries. We found that there was indeed an "Arab Spring" effect with reform and rights issues now perceived as political priorities in most countries - but that fundamental economic issues remained at the top of the list.

The polls were conducted by Zogby Research Services in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. The results varied from country to country, providing an important look into the different sets of concerns confronting each.

There are noteworthy differences in public opinion that can be discerned by looking at this most recent report and similar surveys that we have conducted every second year since 2001. In 2009 for example, in most countries the top priorities were overwhelmingly the so-called bread and butter issues: "expanding employment opportunities"; "improving the health care system"; and "improving the educational system".

The ranking of these priorities varied from country to country, but they were all among the top concerns of a majority of Arab respondents. There were also priorities that were particular to each country. "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.

But domestic political concerns, involving personal rights, reform and democracy, almost never made it into the top tier of priorities in any country.

Here were the most striking differences across the Middle East and North Africa. True, "expanding employment" was still the number one concern in every Arab country except the UAE. But there are now other issues that are looming large across the political landscape. "Ending corruption and nepotism" was a major concern in four of the seven Arab countries surveyed. And in most countries, issues such as "political reform", "advancing democracy" and "protecting personal and civil rights" have broken into the top tier of concerns.

It is interesting to note that the one country where virtually no change in survey results occurred was Egypt, where the top four issues of 2009 (employment, education, health care and corruption) remain the top four concerns of 2011, albeit in a slightly different order. It might be inferred that the Egyptian revolt had less to do with politics and more to do with people's basic needs.

Most Egyptians want an incorruptible government that provides for the basic needs of life such as jobs, health care and education. It was in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and UAE where the political issues of reform and rights have gained prominence.

Meanwhile, the results in Iran showed a greater focus on political concerns. With the exception of employment, which was the number-one issue in the country, the rest of the top tier priorities were all related to democracy.

It is also worth noting that the only countries where advancing women's rights was a prominent concern were Tunisia and the UAE. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained a top concern in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And while combating terrorism and extremism was a significant concern in five of the seven Arab countries, it was 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 had been the case in past surveys and, despite the new issues being raised, it appears that nothing has diminished the sense that things are on the right track in both Gulf countries.

More worrying were the low levels of satisfaction expressed in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, where significant majorities were dissatisfied with the pace of change and see their countries as on the wrong track.

While the fundamentals remain the same - people want jobs, the capability to raise and provide for their families, the opportunity for an education and to receive health care, and the chance to advance - there can be no doubt that the Arab uprisings have introduced a new vocabulary and new concerns into the political discourse. How governments respond to these new concerns in the years to come will be important to watch.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

Published: December 18, 2011 04:00 AM


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