The 2015 Arab Opinion Index: Arab Public Attitudes Towards Democracy

79% of Arabs believe that democracy is the most appropriate system of government for their home countries

The 2015 Arab Opinion Index (AOI) is the fourth in a series of yearly public opinion surveys conducted by The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) across the Arab world. The AOI, is the largest public opinion poll of its kind in the Arab region. The latest survey, conducted between May and September 2015, affords scholars and policy makers the opportunity to understand how the Arab citizenry views the most pressing issues which face it today including, democratic transitions, the growth of radical extremism, in particular, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and potential solutions to the Syrian crisis. This report specifically presents Arab responses to survey questions pertaining to democracy including: definitions of democracy, its compatibility with Islam, and appropriateness for their home countries.

While some in the West have argued that Islam or Middle Eastern culture are incompatible with democracy, responses to the 2015 Arab Opinion Index reflect a different reality. The 2015 AOI responses showed that Arabs define democracy in a variety of different ways, and are generally supportive of it. An overwhelming majority of 89% provided clear, meaningful definitions of democracy: 35% of the overall group of respondents gave answers which emphasized the safeguarding of citizens’ political and civil liberties; 26% defined democracy as the guaranteeing of equality and justice between citizens; and equal numbers (6% each) gave answers that emphasized either safeguarding security and stability or the improvement of economic conditions.


Figure 1.1

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When asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements on democracy, responses revealed that the majority of Arabs have a positive opinion of democracy and its potential compatibility with their societies, but were divided on how ready their societies were for a transition to democracy (Figure1.2).


Figure 1.2 Extent to which Respondents Agreed or Disagreed with Statements on Democracy

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Overall, the Arab publics are supportive of democracy: 72% of respondents are in favor of democracy, in contrast to 22% of respondents, who are opposed to democracy (Figure 1.3).


Figure 1.3

Respondents’ Agreement or Disagreement with the Statement: “Despite its Shortcomings, Democracy Remains Better than Other Forms of Government”

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A further 79% of Arabs believe that democracy is the most appropriate system of government for their home countries (Figure 1.4), when asked to compare democracy to other types of rule, such as authoritarian regimes or representative democracies where electoral competition is limited to either Islamist or non-Islamist/secular political parties, or to theocracies.


Figure 1.4 When compared to other types of government, democracy was chosen by Arab respondents as the most appropriate for their home countries.

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A majority of Arab citizens (55%) would accept an electoral victory and rise to power of a political party which they disagreed with, while 40% stated that they would be opposed to the ascendancy of a political party with which they disagreed through the ballot box (Figure 1.5).

Overall, 62% of the Arab public would accept the electoral rise to power of an Islamist political group, provided it had an electoral mandate. This compares to one third of respondents who stated that they were opposed to the electoral rise to power of an Islamist political party. Meanwhile, Arab public opinion remains more divided (in nearly equal measure) on the question of an un-Islamic/secular party rising to power through elections (Figure 1.6). 


Figure 1.5 Respondents’ Acceptance or Opposition to the Electoral Rise of a Political Party with Which They Disagree

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Figure 1.6 The Arab public would approve, in principle, of an Islamist political party coming to power through the ballot box.

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When asked to rate the level of democracy within their home countries on a numeric scale from 1 to 10 – with 1 being “completely undemocratic” and 10 being “democratic to the greatest extent possible” – respondents’ evaluations in their home countries varied and ranged greatly, from as high as 6.9 in Kuwait to as low as 4.3 in Sudan, resulting in an average score of 5.5 for the aggregate sample. This score shows no statistically significant change since the beginning of the Arab Opinion Index in 2011.

When asked if the citizens of their home country were free to criticize their government without fear of retribution, 38% of the Arab public said ‘no’ (Figure 1.7). Indeed, in some countries, such as in Sudan and in Egypt, outright majorities expressed the view that they were not free to openly criticize their own governments without fear.


Figure 1.7

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The 2015 Index results are based on 18,311 face-to-face interviews conducted in 12 different Arab countries including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The populations of the 12 countries included, constitute 90% of the total population of the Arab League’s member states. Of the participants surveyed, 49% were aged between 18 and 34 years old, 36% between 35 and 54 years, and 15% were aged 55 and over. There was a near even split of male and female respondents, with a 63% to 37% split between those based in urban and rural areas respectively. Each of the country-specific samples were conducted using a randomized, self-weighted, multi-stage cluster method, providing margins of error of between 2% and 3%.

A more extensive report on the results of the 2015 Index is available in English (here) and in Arabic (here).

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