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Egyptians prevented from answering questions on democracy in Arab World Survey

Major new survey finds declining faith in democracy, but critics say poll is 'skewed' and citizens of authoritarian countries not allowed to answer all questions
Egyptian pro-democracy protesters celebrate at Cairo's Tahrir Square after president Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011 (AFP)

A major new survey has claimed that Arabs are losing faith in the effectiveness of democracy, despite respondents in autocratic Egypt being denied the chance to answer questions on that very topic.

Citizens of several authoritarian countries in the Middle East did not also participate. 

The Arab World Survey, commissioned by BBC News Arabic and conducted by the Arab Barometer network based at Princeton University, interviewed 23,000 people across Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Palestine.

It was carried out between October 2021 and April 2022, and asked questions on a range of subjects including democracy, foreign leaders, religiosity, women’s rights and racism. 

The survey, published on Wednesday, found that the vast majority of respondents believed that “under a democratic system, the country’s economic performance is weak”. 

It also found that most people agree with the statements: “Democratic regimes are indecisive and full of problems,” “democratic systems are not effective at maintaining order and stability”, and “this country needs a leader who can bend the rules to get things done”. 

Egypt and Mauritania evade questions

These statements on democracy were answered by people from nine of the participating ten states, with the notable exception of Egypt. 

Egyptians also did not participate in questions on whether people prayed Fajr morning prayers on time, and whether they read the Quran daily.

A question asking respondents about their views on various world leaders’ foreign policy towards the Middle East and Africa region was also not answered in Egypt because “authorities would not allow these questions to be asked”. 

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Elsewhere, there are no results from Mauritania on the topic of racial discrimination because Mauritanian authorities asked for questions to be “modified or removed”.

The report notes that the country is going through a national dialogue to formally address racial issues. 

Michael Robbins, director of Arab Barometer, told Middle East Eye that apart from Lebanon and Tunisia, the researchers needed some form of state approval to carry out questionnaires in the surveyed countries. 

“Generally, locals have an idea of what is legal and what isn’t. We don’t want to put our teams in danger. I don’t think any survey is worth a human life or having someone jailed,” he said. 

He said that authorities had sensitivities on certain topics, and did not usually provide a reason as to why some questions were not allowed to be answered by citizens. 

“Egyptian authorities were very sensitive about international relations questions. That may be related to current negotiations with different powers.” 

'Skewed and manipulative'

Analysts have expressed doubt over the findings, citing the omission of some countries and the framing of the questions.

“We have to interpret these results cautiously. A number of countries are excluded, the sampling methodology is imperfect, and some questions could not be asked in some of the surveyed countries,” Mohamad Elmasry, chair of the media studies programme at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, told Middle East Eye. 

'[It was] engineered to elicit negative responses on democracy, while offering respondents no opportunity to give their opinions on the problems with undemocratic governance'

-Sarah Leah Whitson, Dawn

Elmasry said that it was fair to ask how democratic governments were likely to perform economically, particularly if the same questions are asked over time.

“However, I would prefer that mirroring questions be asked for other forms of government, most notably authoritarianism,” he noted.

“This is important, especially since authoritarianism is more common in the region.”

Asked by MEE why questions were not asked about the impact of authoritarianism, Robbins said it was something “we want to do and will do in future surveys”. 

“It’s unfortunate that the Arab Barometer’s questions on governance were so skewed and manipulative,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), told Middle East Eye. 

“[It was] engineered to elicit negative responses on democracy, while offering respondents no opportunity to give their opinions on the problems with undemocratic, unrepresentative governance.”

Whitson took issue with the wording of the questions, noting that only negative options were given in relation to democracy, with “nothing positive”. 

“The survey provides a distorted image of Arab public opinion, entirely excluding respondents from some of the region’s most abusive governments, while omitting political questions in countries like Egypt,” she said. 

Erdogan rated most popular leader 

Gulf countries, which are among the most autocratic in the region, were not involved in the survey. 

Robbins said that the Gulf was a “much more restrictive environment” than other parts of the Middle East, but that the Arab Barometer is trying to push for more access in those countries. 

He added that the survey’s funding often fluctuated, and it currently only had funding to research 12 countries. The results for Kuwait and Algeria were received too late to be included in the study.

The Arab Barometer’s major funders include two US government agencies, the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the Agency for International Development. Among other funders are BBC Arabic, the National Endowment for Democracy, the UN Development Programme and Princeton and Michigan universities. 

While the findings indicated a decline in faith in democracy to provide stability and economic strength, overall most respondents still believed it to be the best form of government. 

Elsewhere in the survey, there was widespread acknowledgement of racial discrimination, except in Egypt, where only eight percent of people said it was a problem. Eighty-six percent of Egyptians said there was no racial discrimination “at all” against dark skinned individuals. 

It found that a majority of people surveyed said that men are better at political leadership than women, though support for this view had declined since 2018. 

Lebanon and Tunisia had seen the biggest decline in this view, where less than half of respondents believe men to be better leaders. 

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While the 2018 survey found that some in the region were turning their backs on religion, most countries have seen a decline in the number of people describing themselves as “not religious”. 

The analysis on global leaders compared the popularity of the MENA policies of presidents in the US, China, Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Syria, as well as Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. 

Six of the nine countries (Egypt did not partake) favoured Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy the most, while Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was the least popular. 

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