In 2011, citizens across the Middle East took to the streets to demand more representative governments, social justice, and economic reforms. In Egypt and Tunisia, protest movements toppled dictators who had ruled for decades; authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the region were rattled as never before. The Arab Spring captured imaginations around the world and challenged long-held assumptions about the region’s political culture.

Within just a few years, however, hope had mostly given way to despair: the old order came roaring back—even more repressive than before in some places. That outcome, however, did not settle the underlying question of the future of democracy in the Middle East. Protest movements and nascent democratic governments ultimately failed to end a decades-long era of authoritarian rule, but that did not necessarily mean that the desire for democratic change had dissipated. Even as autocrats reasserted control in the years immediately following the Arab Spring, many analysts continued to aver that the revolts had unleashed aspirations for new economic and political arrangements, signaling the dawn of a more inclusive era. According to that view, in the Middle East, the arc of history was indeed long, but it was nevertheless still bending toward democracy.

A little over a decade after the initial uprisings, there are fewer grounds for such optimism. Not only have authoritarians further consolidated their rule, but even more important, attitudes toward democracy and political rights have dramatically shifted. At the time of the revolts, most citizens across the region believed that democracy was the best political system, according to the Arab Barometer research network, where we serve as co-principal investigators. In eight of the ten countries that Arab Barometer surveyed in 2010–11, more than 70 percent of respondents held that view. By 2018–19, however, support had fallen: in only seven of the 12 countries surveyed did at least 70 percent of respondents prefer democracy over all other systems.

To understand why the Arab world’s ardor for democracy has faded, it is crucial to grasp that most of the people who took to the streets in 2011 were motivated not just by a desire for liberty but also by intense frustration with the material conditions of their lives. “Bread, freedom, and justice” was the protest slogan often heard in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising—and there is a reason bread comes first on the list. Egyptians and Tunisians saw economic considerations as the primary reason for the Arab Spring revolts in their countries, according to Arab Barometer surveys conducted in both places in 2011. The protesters were tired of political repression, but they were deeply angry about the meager opportunities that authoritarian systems afforded. The brief flowering of pro-democracy passions and movements failed to produce durable democratic governments. Perhaps more important, however, it also failed to produce the kind of economic change that people across the Middle East desperately craved.

Today, the region is plagued by the same issues that have dragged down its economic development for decades: high unemployment, especially among young people; low rates of participation in the labor force, especially among women; a lack of high-quality education; rising inequality; and rampant corruption. The COVID-19 pandemic has made things much worse, not only leading to illness and death but also spurring a collapse in oil prices, a dramatic drop in tourism, and an across-the-board decline in economic activity of all kinds. The International Monetary Fund has estimated that the annualized growth rate across the region of the Middle East and North Africa in 2020 was negative 4.7 percent, and the World Bank has estimated that the pandemic has left tens of millions of Arab citizens at income levels that qualify as below the poverty line in upper-middle-income countries.

All these pressures and hardships might lead some observers to expect another explosion of protests and calls for change. In 2019, prior to the onset of the pandemic, long-standing dictators were deposed in Algeria and Sudan, and protests forced changes of government in Iraq and Lebanon. To a large extent, however, the movements behind those developments were calling for better governance and economic management rather than democracy per se. It appears that the people of the Arab world have internalized one lesson above all from the revolts of the last decade: democratic change does not necessarily produce economic improvement. Indeed, today, people in the more authoritarian countries across the region tend to view their economic situations in a significantly more favorable light than do people in the countries that lean more toward democracy.

As U.S. influence has waned, the Chinese model has become more attractive to many Arabs

Meanwhile, in the decade since the Arab Spring, the United States has retreated from the region in ways that have called into question its support for those who oppose oppressive regimes. Although Washington declined in 2011 to strongly support the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, it also declined to counter the 2013 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government that had eventually emerged after Mubarak’s downfall. Nor did the United States match its rhetorical praise for the opposition to the Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad with genuine support.

As U.S. influence has waned and regional economies have stagnated, the Chinese economic and development model and, to a lesser extent, the Russian one have become more attractive to many Arabs, particularly in contrast to the perceived limitations of Western neoliberalism. The Chinese and Russian systems, at least as viewed by many in the Middle East, appear to avoid the political tumult of democracy and offer the promise of stability and economic growth. This shift in perceptions may have complex and somewhat counterintuitive ramifications for the future of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Surprisingly, in the countries that have leaned toward democracy in recent years, people tend to see China and Russia as more beneficial economic partners than the United States—whereas in some of the Middle East’s authoritarian-leaning countries, the idea of strengthening economic links to the United States fares better.

DID DEMOCRACY DELIVER?

To get a more detailed sense of these trends in the Middle East, it is useful to consider two groups of countries in which Arab Barometer has conducted regular surveys during the past decade. In the first group are three authoritarian-leaning countries: Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan. These three countries have followed a similar path since the Arab Spring. In each one, the major changes sought by the protesters in 2011 were not fully realized, the regimes that ruled prior to the revolts remain more or less in place today, and economic growth has stayed relatively weak, owing in part to a lack of significant reforms.

In Egypt, massive protests in early 2011 led to the fall of Mubarak, followed by elections in which a candidate loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood triumphed. A military coup in 2013, however, cut short the democratic experiment, and the old regime reasserted itself under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sisi has curtailed political rights, but economic growth has increased after remaining mostly flat during Egypt’s brief democratic phase.

In Morocco, small-scale protests in 2011—and the regime’s wary eye on events elsewhere—led to constitutional reforms. But the changes did not dramatically alter the monarchical system, and King Mohammed VI maintains the vast majority of power. The average rates of economic growth had fallen gradually over the last decade but have declined sharply since the onset of the pandemic.

Citizens in democratic-leaning countries have come to believe that the democratic system itself is the problem

Jordan also saw modest protests in 2011, and there, too, the monarchy supported limited constitutional reform. In the years since, King Abdullah II has pursued further constitutional reforms, first in 2016 and again in 2022, in large part in response to growing frustration over economic stagnation and the damage wreaked by COVID-19. But the monarchy remains firmly in control.

In the second group are three democratic-leaning countries: Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia. These are the three countries surveyed by Arab Barometer in which elections are the most meaningful. But their elected governments have failed to address major economic problems. In the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation, Iraq developed a political system that is not fully democratic but in which power has regularly changed hands through elections. Economic growth has been erratic, mostly because of the fluctuating price of oil, which is Iraq’s main export. Even when oil prices are high, however, endemic corruption guarantees that relatively little wealth flows to ordinary Iraqis.

Lebanon is also far from a full democracy, but the system of governance that emerged from the 1989 Taif accord resulted in relatively regular elections in which multiple parties compete. Despite a complex system of sharing top government positions among the country’s main sects, in recent decades, elections have managed to alter the balance of political power. But rampant corruption and the failure of the political elite to address long-standing economic challenges led to a full-blown crisis in late 2019, culminating in the country’s default on its debt in 2020. Since the crisis began, the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value. The World Bank has concluded that Lebanon may be experiencing one of the three worst economic collapses since the mid-nineteenth century.

Of all the countries surveyed by Arab Barometer, Tunisia—despite a recent autocratic turn—comes the closest to having emerged from the Arab Spring as a full democracy, with regular elections in which parties freely compete for actual power. In the past decade, however, per capita income there has declined, in large part because of the failure of consecutive governments to meaningfully tackle a legacy of economic problems inherited from the former regime.

Protesting in Cairo, January 2011
Protesting in Cairo, January 2011
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

When comparing these two groups of countries, a striking contrast emerges in citizens’ views of their state’s economy: those in the three authoritarian-leaning states tend to have a far more positive economic outlook than those in the three democratic-leaning ones. In Egypt, 41 percent of citizens surveyed rated their economy as good or very good in 2018–19; in Morocco, 36 percent shared that assessment; and in Jordan, the figure was 23 percent. Compared with in wealthy, developed countries, even ones elsewhere in the Middle East, those numbers are quite low; for example, in Kuwait, 77 percent of citizens polled perceived their economy as good or very good in 2019. But the levels of public satisfaction with economic conditions in Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan were generally higher than they were in Iraq (21 percent), Lebanon (14 percent), and Tunisia (seven percent).

This pattern recurred when respondents were asked to rate their government’s performance in creating jobs. Twenty-two percent of respondents in Egypt, 20 percent in Morocco, and 14 percent in Jordan agreed that their government was doing a good job on employment. Again, compared with in wealthier countries, these numbers are quite low; in Kuwait, over half of respondents held that view. Yet they shine in comparison with assessments of job creation in the three democratic-leaning countries: only 17 percent of Tunisians, six percent of Iraqis, and four percent of Lebanese gave their government a positive evaluation on job creation.

Citizens in the democratic-leaning countries are not merely griping about their leader’s performance on economic issues, however: many have come to believe that the democratic system itself, at least as it works in their country, is the problem. In Lebanon, according to a 2020 survey conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 55 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: “Our country should abolish elections and have experts govern.” In Tunisia, 45 percent agreed. (The survey did not include Iraq.) In all three countries, a sense of despair about the future has taken root, especially among young people. In the foundation’s survey, 53 percent of Lebanese respondents aged 18 to 29 said they had considered leaving their country, as did 47 percent of Tunisian respondents in that cohort. By comparison, lower percentages in Jordan (36 percent) and Morocco (31 percent) had considered leaving their homeland.

TUNISIA’S TRAVAILS

Of the three democratic-leaning countries, Tunisia offers perhaps the most striking example of how persistent economic hardship has soured people on democracy. During the past decade, the country had often been held up as democracy’s greatest hope in the Middle East. Analysts suggested that of all the countries in the region, Tunisia had the best basis for success: an ethnically homogeneous, relatively well-educated population; a comparatively large middle class; and a military that was generally apolitical. In the Constituent Assembly elections that followed the revolution, Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, won a plurality of the seats and governed in a coalition with two other parties. After high-profile political assassinations in 2013 led to a crisis, a new government headed by a technocratic prime minister was formed in early 2014. Elections later that year were won by Nidaa Tounes, a secular party established largely to oppose Ennahda.

Ongoing infighting within Nidaa Tounes, however, and its rivalry with Ennahda resulted in weak governments. In presidential elections in 2019, Kais Saied, a previously obscure constitutional law professor, defeated Nabil Karoui, a populist business leader. Both candidates were complete outsiders, suggesting a broad rejection of the political elite by ordinary citizens. Then, last year, Saied dissolved parliament, claiming the economic crisis made such a move necessary and effectively ending Tunisia’s democratic experiment—with a good deal of public support. As in Egypt in 2013, the majority of citizens in Tunisia had lost faith in the process of change that the Arab Spring had ushered in.

Ordinary Arabs want economic dignity and are desperately searching for a system of governance that can offer it.

Saied has met with relatively little opposition because Tunisia’s democratic transition failed to bring tangible economic benefits and solutions to its people. Today, the country’s economy is in worse condition than it was before the Arab Spring: in 2011, per capita income in Tunisia stood at $4,265; by 2020, it had fallen to $3,320. Unsurprisingly, people’s economic frustrations have grown. In 2011, only a few months after the fall of the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 27 percent of Tunisians surveyed by Arab Barometer said they believed their economy was in good or very good shape; in 2018, that figure had fallen to just seven percent.

Many Tunisians have concluded that the root of the problem is the very system they fought to put in place after toppling Ben Ali. In 2011, when asked if democratic regimes are indecisive and full of problems, only 19 percent of Tunisians agreed; by 2018, that figure was 51 percent. In 2011, 17 percent of Tunisian respondents agreed with the statement “In democratic systems, economic performance is weak.” By 2018, that proportion had more than doubled, to 39 percent. This trend was especially pronounced among young Tunisians, many of whom came of age during the democratic transition. In 2011, just 21 percent of Tunisians between the ages of 18 and 29 associated democracy with weak economic performance; by 2018, that figure had jumped to 43 percent. It is not hard to see why. According to the Tunisian economist Mongi Boughzala, “The share of unemployed people [in Tunisia] who are younger than 35 years old is 85 percent. And the higher the level of education attainment, the higher the rate of unemployment: 40 percent of the unemployed have university degrees.”

AUTHORITARIAN ANSWERS

What emerges clearly from the Arab Barometer results is a stark message: ordinary Arabs want economic dignity and are desperately searching for a system of governance that can offer it. And because democracy has failed to deliver economically across the Middle East, many ordinary Arabs—including some who had hoped for democracy a decade ago—now appear more open to the authoritarian models offered by China and Russia. Since the late 1970s, the Chinese system has lifted more than 800 million people out of extreme poverty, according to the World Bank—just the kind of economic transformation that many across the Middle East are desperate to achieve. In China, GDP per capita was $2,194 in 2000 and reached $10,431 in 2020. Russia’s GDP per capita roughly quadrupled over those 20 years, from around $7,000 to about $28,000. Meanwhile, average GDP per capita in the wealthy countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development barely doubled, rising from around $25,000 to around $45,000.

As the United States has focused less on the Middle East, China and Russia have stepped in. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has signed economic cooperation agreements with several Arab governments. As the researcher Charles Dunne has noted, “China became the largest foreign investor in the region in 2016, and since BRI was inaugurated, Beijing has pumped at least $123 billion into the Middle East in BRI-related project financing.” Russia has not provided the same type of economic aid but has played an active military role. By intervening to support its allies in Libya and Syria, Moscow signaled its reengagement with the region after decades of retrenchment following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As the United States has focused less on the Middle East, China and Russia have stepped in.

It comes as no surprise, then, that many Arabs are inclined to want their government to forge stronger economic ties with Beijing and Moscow, even if doing so means reducing their country’s economic links with the United States. Here, however, a revealing pattern emerges from the Arab Barometer surveys: in the democratic-leaning countries, people clearly favor improved economic ties with China and Russia over stronger economic links with the United States, whereas in the autocratic-leaning countries, stronger economic ties with the United States retain a good deal of appeal. In Lebanon in 2018, 42 percent of respondents wanted stronger economic ties with China, and 43 percent wanted them with Russia, whereas only 36 percent wanted stronger ties with the United States. Among Iraqis, 51 percent favored stronger ties with China, 43 percent with Russia, and only 35 percent with the United States. In Tunisia, 63 percent agreed that they would like to see stronger ties with China, 50 percent with Russia, and only 45 percent with the United States. Citizens in these countries do not seem to take into account the U.S. democratic system when forming opinions about economic relations with Washington.

The picture is more complex in the autocratic-leaning countries, where the prospect of stronger economic ties with the United States fared better. In Jordan, 70 percent of respondents agreed they wanted stronger economic ties with China, higher than the 57 percent who responded the same way regarding the United States. But stronger ties with Russia were favored by only 43 percent. In Egypt, Russia received the highest evaluation: 38 percent of respondents wished for stronger economic ties with Russia, 36 percent wanted them with the United States, and 30 percent with China. In Morocco, 49 percent of respondents wanted greater economic links with China, 43 percent with the United States, and 40 percent with Russia.

Among the global powers, China was the most popular potential economic partner in the 12 countries that Arab Barometer surveyed in 2018–19. And yet it is unclear to what degree such closer ties might benefit Beijing, at least in terms of winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Arabs, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite China’s aggressive efforts at “vaccine diplomacy,” for example, views of China in the region changed relatively little between the summer of 2020 and the spring of 2021, according to Arab Barometer surveys conducted in seven countries there.

WHATEVER WORKS

As democratization and economic development continue to sputter in the Middle East, many analysts and pundits will place the blame on what they perceive as flaws in Arab political culture, which some see as uniquely inhospitable to democracy. This view is faulty not only because it exonerates outside actors that bolster authoritarian rulers in the Middle East to advance their own interests but also because it elides the role of economic stagnation in turning many ordinary Arabs against the idea of democratic change. The steep decline in interest and faith in democracy in recent years does not reflect a failure of Arab polities to grasp the value of liberty. It reflects, rather, the failure of international, regional, and local actors to solve the region’s deeply rooted economic problems.

To slow the advance of authoritarianism and give democratic and liberal ideals another chance in the Middle East, the United States and international actors need to get back to basics. Any effort to promote democracy must take into account citizens’ aspirations for economic dignity. Appeals to abstract notions alone will not be persuasive. Arabs crave freedom and justice—but if democracy does not also deliver bread, Arabs will back political systems that do.

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  • AMANEY A. JAMAL is Co-Founder and Co-Principal Investigator at Arab Barometer, Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.
  • MICHAEL ROBBINS is Director and Co-Principal Investigator at Arab Barometer.
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