The region disagrees on the Arab Spring’s results

Four years after the Arab Spring began, James Zogby looks at attitudes of those living in the aftermath.

The euphoria of Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution of 2011 is a contrast to sentiments now. Photo: Mohamed Omar / EPA
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Four years ago, Tunisia and Egypt erupted in broad popular revolts. At first, analysts were confounded. When other countries followed, the upheavals became known as the Arab Spring – the assumption being that what was occurring in the Middle East would unfold in a manner reminiscent of the rapid transformations that took place in Eastern Europe following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The model envisaged by the term was relatively straightforward. A spark had been ignited in Tunisia that would catch fire across the region bringing social and political transformation in its wake. It was a simple linear trajectory from dictatorship to democracy. Many experts were certain that this would be the way the Arab Spring would progress.

However, when Zogby Research Services (ZRS) conducted polls in Arab countries in late 2011, we found that public opinion was less certain. For example, we asked citizens in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whether they believed the Middle East was better or worse off as a result of the Arab Spring. The responses were divided between those who said that they felt the Arab world was “better off” and those who thought that it might be “too early to tell”. This mix of being both hopeful and tentative reflected the uncertainty that many felt at the collapse of the old order.

ZRS polled in most of these same countries again this autumn, to see what the Arab public now felt about the Arab Spring. What we found was that the mood has soured with the number of those saying that the region is “worse off” more than tripling or at least doubling what it had been in 2011.

We also found that what was once projected as a simple narrative with a single trajectory had now devolved into a far more complex portrait of individual stories each with their own unique characteristics: Egypt is not Tunisia. Yemen is not Syria or Libya and Bahrain is none of the above.

When we asked Arabs to assess developments in the countries that had experienced upheavals, and how hopeful they were that each would produce a brighter future, only Tunisia fared well.

Egypt was seen as moving in a positive direction only by Emiratis and Saudis (whose countries have invested heavily in Egypt), while reviews of Yemen’s path were somewhat mixed. We noted that the poll was completed before Houthi allied forces overran Sanaa, bringing new uncertainty to that country. Libya was judged to be significantly worse off than before the Arab Spring began. And the overwhelming majority of respondents in all countries had little hope that the situation in Syria or Libya would be resolved in the next five years.

One by-product of the Arab Spring was the empowering of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In our poll, we found that respondents demonstrated little support for the role of the Brotherhood in their own country, but there was an acknowledgement of the positive role that the group had played in Tunisia.

The Brotherhood received mixed reviews for its role in Egypt. A most revealing result was the near even positive-negative assessment (43 per cent to 44 per cent) that Egyptians gave to its impact on developments in their country.

This finding, which will likely be rejected by some, matches the results found by other polling companies and continues the upwards climb in the Brotherhood’s ratings in polls we have conducted in Egypt in the last two years.

It doesn’t necessarily translate to a measure of the group’s popularity as it does to a growing uneasiness with the current trajectory of developments in Egypt. Evidence of this unease can be found in responses we received when we found Egyptians divided as to whether the situation in their country had become better or worse since the beginning of the Arab Spring: 30 per cent said “better” and 29 per cent said “worse”.

In addition to the unravelling of the Arab Spring and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, other factors we explored were regional views of the bloody conflict in Syria, the emergence of ISIL, and the growth of the twin cancers of radicalisation and sectarianism.

What we found were universal concern with the war in Syria, and specifically the impact it was having in the broader region (in particular, the refugee crisis and the growth of sectarian division and radicalism) and fear that Syria might fragment into destabilising sect-based entities. There was no confidence that this conflict would end soon or that a way might be found to achieve a negotiated solution to resolve it. In every country but Lebanon, there was rejection of the Assad regime.

There is near universal rejection of ISIL and deep concern about the impact that this movement was having on the region.

At the same time, the lack of confidence in the US that we found in our June 2014 poll and the low favourable ratings Arabs give to US involvement in the region combine to create less than enthusiastic support for a western-led effort to confront ISIL. In fact, only in Egypt and Iraq were slight majorities in favour of a role for the West in this conflict. In Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the majority was opposed.

After reviewing the results of this study, what emerges is a region deeply conflicted about the developments of the past four years. What had been presented as a simple storyline of progress at the beginning of the Arab Spring, has become a troubling tale of more steps backward than forward.

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa