The Arab uprisings were a momentous event that dramatically altered the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Regimes across the region faced mass protests with four long-standing leaders being deposed as a result. Deteriorating economic conditions and the failure of leaders to respect basic rights of their citizens produced this outburst of anger that led millions of Arab citizens to make their voices heard. Meaningful elections were held in Egypt and Tunisia for the first time while other governments promised reforms across the region, leading to significant hopes for changes.
Yet, a decade later, there are questions about what, if anything, has really changed as a result of the uprisings. Ten years later, only Tunisia is considered democratic, but the inability of its officials to produce tangible results to improve basic conditions for its citizens has resulted in political fragility. A democratically elected leader in Egypt was overthrown, while civil war has raged in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Elsewhere, promised reforms rarely materialized while governments have once again placed greater restrictions on the freedoms of their citizens. This renewed anger spurred the protests of 2019, which led to changes in leadership in four countries across the region.
As these mass protest movements have demonstrated, even under authoritarian rule, views of citizens do matter. Tracking public opinion is crucial to understand these events, which is why the Arab Barometer has been conducting nationally representative public opinion surveys since 2006 across 15 Arab countries.[i] Comparing the results from our most recent full wave in 2018-9 with the wave conducted in 2011 reveals a number of important changes across the region.
The results show a number of important trends that help put the events of 2011 into context while foreshadowing the unrest which was taking place across the region prior the outbreak of COVID in early 2020. The results reveal that initial gains due to reforms that stemmed from the 2011 uprisings were soon reversed leading to a broad decline in views of government, the economy, and the state of civil rights, which have now fallen to levels lower than those observed a decade ago. This continued deterioration, which is likely to be exacerbated by the effects of the COVID pandemic, will continue to present challenges in the years ahead.
Economic grievances were a major challenge that led to the outburst of anger in 2011. Years of declining economic fortunes, rising unemployment, and the inability to find employment for youth coming of age contributed to frustrations. Citizens were unable to provide for their families, especially as states across the region were unable to maintain the old social contract that, in many countries, guaranteed employment for a large proportion such as those with a secondary degree in the case of Egypt. Shortly before the uprisings, Arab Barometer finds that on average only a third of citizens (32 percent) rated their country’s economy as good or very good,[ii] which was about the same as in 2011 (34 percent).[iii] The years after the uprisings exhibited a slight uptick in views of economic conditions, rising to 36 percent in 2013.[iv] This small increase could be the result of increased government spending across the region on social sectors in response to the uprisings as many governments tried to appear more responsive to their citizens.
However, since 2013 views of the economy have again declined across the region. The average rating fell to 32 percent positive in 2016[v] and to just a quarter (26 percent) in 2018-9.[vi] As temporary measures taken by governments failed to address long-term structural challenges or lower unemployment rates which, particularly for youth, remain high, citizens became even more frustrated with economic conditions than on the eve of the uprisings.
This is especially true considering the fact that most citizens see corruption as endemic and perceptions of corruption have increased since the uprisings. In 2011, on average, 78 percent of those living in MENA said corruption was present in the government to a large or medium extent.[vii] By 2018-9, this level had increased to 84 percent across the region, with dramatic increases in a number of countries.[viii] For example, in Tunisia the level increased by 21 points from 69 percent in 2011 to 90 percent in 2018 while Jordan witnessed a similar 23-point rise from 66 percent to 89 percent over the same period.[ix]
More importantly, the percentage of citizens who believe that the government is seeking to address this problem has remained largely unchanged. At the time of the Arab uprisings, on average, only 42 percent of citizens who said there is corruption believed governments were working to tackle this problem.[x] By 2018-9, 41 percent held this view.[xi] However, this general trend masks broader changes in some countries. Notably, in Tunisia the percentage dropped by 20 points from 64 percent to 44 percent during this period,[xii] suggesting that the political system is not meeting the demands of citizens on this issue. Meanwhile, in Jordan, the percentage dropped by nine points during the same timeframe.[xiii]
Yet, economic concerns and corruption are not the predominate concerns in all countries. In Libya and Yemen, two countries that experienced uprisings but descended into civil conflict, security concerns are at the forefront of people’s minds. In Libya in 2019, only 12 percent said that the economy was the main problem while 14 percent name corruption. Concerns about the civil conflict, including foreign interference (19 percent), terrorism (16 percent), security (13 percent), and internal stability (9 percent) are the overwhelming concerns.[xiv] Meanwhile, in Yemen, 31 percent list foreign interference while 39 percent say the economy, highlighting the dual challenges related to the ongoing conflict in this country.[xv]
Changing views of government
Given concern about the economy and increasing perceptions of corruption, it is unsurprising that levels of trust in government are lower now than at the time of the uprisings. However, it’s clear that the uprisings seem to have brought some hope to the region, with about half of citizens (53 percent) saying they had a great or medium level of trust in their national government.[xvi] Levels were particularly high in Egypt (78 percent) and Tunisia (62 percent) where citizens appeared hopeful about their respective revolutions, while in Jordan 72 percent also enjoyed high levels of confidence in their government at the time of the uprisings.[xvii]
Over the last decade, levels of trust in government have declined dramatically, falling by 19 points to just 34 percent on average by 2018-9.[xviii] In Tunisia, only 20 percent of citizens say they trust the government, which is a 42-point decline.[xix] In Jordan, the level has fallen by 34 points to 38 percent.[xx] Notably, the three of the four countries with lowest levels of trust in government are the three countries in the region where elections are the most meaningful: Tunisia, Iraq (19 percent), and Lebanon (19 percent).[xxi] The fourth is Libya (10 percent), where a weak government that took power following elections gave way to a civil war.[xxii] In short, it does not appear that elections have translated into significant legitimacy for the governments in MENA. In all these countries, governments have been perceived as largely ineffectual in tackling the complex problems confronting society and citizens have little confidence in them as a result.
Moreover, the case of Egypt also offers an important caution. Shortly after the first free and fair elections in the country’s history, trust in government plummeted to just 22 percent as the government led by the Muslim Brotherhood instituted its agenda.[xxiii] Yet, after the military coup, confidence in the government has increased and is among the highest in the region at 66 percent in 2018.[xxiv] In large part, this appears to be linked by the fact the government has imposed security and order, which is the factor that Egyptians rate the government most positively.[xxv] In sum, it appears that many citizens are more concerned about results their government can provide than whether or not the government can claim legitimacy based on winning free and fair elections.
Loss of rights
As citizens have lost trust in their governments and struggled economically, they have also suffered a loss of basic human rights. Governments across the region have taken a number of approaches that have limited the ability of citizens to voice their opinions, such as a campaign in Lebanon to limit online activism or increasingly harsh police crackdowns responses to demonstrations in countries like Morocco and Tunisia. Combined, these efforts have had a chilling effect on perceptions of rights across the region.
In the case of freedom of speech, a majority of citizens in countries surveyed said they enjoyed this right was fully guaranteed at the time of the uprisings in 2011.[xxvi] As governments relaxed some restrictions in the wake of these events, perceptions increased, rising to two-thirds (66 percent) in 2013[xxvii] and remaining relatively high in 2016 (63 percent).[xxviii] Yet, by 2018-9, perceptions had dropped dramatically, falling by 20 points to just 43 percent on average.[xxix] Lebanon witnessed a massive decline, likely due to a number of high-profile prosecutions of activists during this period, falling from 69 percent in 2016 to just 44 percent in 2018.[xxx] Jordan had a similar decline of 23 points, falling from 77 percent in 2016 to 54 percent.[xxxi] Even in Tunisia, the most democratic country in MENA, perceptions of the degree to which freedom of speech is guaranteed have fallen from 78 percent in 2013 to just 66 percent in 2018.[xxxii]
Results are similar for other fundamental rights. Those who say they enjoy the right to demonstrate peacefully has fallen from 57 percent in 2013 to 35 percent in 2018-9 across the region.[xxxiii] Declines during this period are particularly dramatic in Lebanon (-31 points) and Tunisia (-28 points).[xxxiv] Meanwhile, for freedom of association, the region has witnessed a 22-point decline since 2013, including a 34-point drop in Lebanon and a 26-point fall in Tunisia.[xxxv] In sum, citizens across the region are far less likely to say their basic rights are guaranteed than in the initial period following the uprisings.
Before the Arab uprisings of 2011, many citizens across the region sought to emigrate primarily for economic reasons.[xxxvi] On average, about four-in-ten (41 percent) had considered leaving their homeland. However, the uprisings appeared to offer hope of a better future; in 2011, this percentage had dropped by 10 points while it continued to fall over the ensuing years, with just a quarter of citizens across the countries surveyed saying they had considered leaving in 2016.[xxxvii] Yet, as the hope brought about by the uprisings receded, this long-term decline reversed. In 2018-9, in the average country, 32 percent of citizens considered moving abroad, representing a seven-point increase since 2016.[xxxviii]
The desire to emigrate is not held equally across society, however. In 2018-9, those who are younger were far more likely to want to leave, with especially large differences between those who are ages 18-29 and those over 30 in Morocco (45 points), Algeria (35 points), Egypt (33 points), and Tunisia (31 points).[xxxix] Those with a university education are also more likely to want to migrate, including by 22 points in Tunisia, 21 points in Algeria, and 19 points in Morocco.[xl] These preferences are likely to exacerbate the brain drain that has long affected the region, with many of the region’s best and brightest now being more likely to seek opportunities abroad compared with the early days after the uprisings.
Preferred destination countries vary across countries surveyed, but the majority overall want to leave for Europe.[xli] This is especially true in the Maghreb countries, where strong historic ties and large diasporas in Western European countries make this option particularly attractive. Elsewhere, historic migration patterns also seem to drive preferred destinations, with Egyptians, Sudanese, and Yemenis most likely to look to GCC countries. Meanwhile, countries in the Levant like Jordan and Lebanon have a preference for North American countries, which may be linked to historic migration patterns, particularly to the U.S. and Canada.
The Road Ahead
The initial hopes of the post-Arab Spring period have given way to a sense of anger and frustration across MENA. Even prior to the outbreak of COVID, economic conditions were perceived as worse than before the uprisings. Frustration with corruption has continued to rise, which in part explains why an initial uptick in views of the government gave way to a significant decline in ratings. Moreover, citizens feel that they are losing gains they had achieved in the wake of 2011, including the ability to speak freely, gather freely, or join organizations. Given these conditions, it is unsurprising that protests broke out across many countries in 2019, including Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan, which only abated as COVID-related restrictions came into effect in 2020.
As in countries across the world, COVID has placed significant challenges on the MENA region. The disease has led to tens of thousands of deaths, the health sector has come under extreme stress, and lockdowns have hurt economies. Conditions are expected to be even more challenging as citizens emerge from the pandemic, meaning it is likely that many will be deeply frustrated with their governments and protests are likely to recur. Citizens made their voices clear in 2011 that change was needed but initial reforms that were implemented across the region largely were abandoned with old patterns taking hold once again. Arab Barometer results make clear that the region is likely to be even on edge in the decade ahead as the promise of the Arab uprisings failed to meet the expectations of citizens. Without significant changes or reforms, it is likely that citizens will take action, either in the streets or looking to leave their homelands in search of better opportunities in the years ahead.
Yet, there are also some signs of hope that could change the trajectory of countries in the region. Some governments have responded capably to the COVID pandemic. For example, Jordan was initially a leader in preventing infection while countries including Morocco are among world leaders in the percentage of citizens vaccinated in spring 2021. The ability of some governments to effectively tackle this crisis could lead to changes going forward. Initial results from the ongoing sixth wave of Arab Barometer surveys suggests that citizens are rating their governments largely based on their perceived effectiveness in addressing the pandemic.[xlii] If countries can be seen as protecting their population, then it may be a chance to rebuild the social contract, especially if governments are able to tackle other long-standing problems as well once the pandemic has passed. Ultimately, the COVID crisis could offer an opportunity for a reset but realizing this potential will require governments to undertake serious reforms and bring about meaningful change for their citizens.
[i] Unfortunately, the only Gulf country where Arab Barometer data is available is Kuwait in the most recent round of surveys and the project has not been able to conduct a survey in Bahrain since 2009, limiting the ability to include findings from this part of MENA. Other countries that experienced uprisings such as Syria, have never been included in the project.
[ii] Arab Barometer, Wave 1, 2006-9. Available at https://www.arabbarometer.org/surveys/arab-barometer-wave-i/
[iii] Arab Barometer, Wave 2, 2010-1. Available at https://www.arabbarometer.org/surveys/arab-barometer-wave-ii/
[iv] Arab Barometer, Wave 3, 2012-4. Available at https://www.arabbarometer.org/surveys/arab-barometer-wave-iii/
[v] Arab Barometer, Wave 4, 2016. Available at https://www.arabbarometer.org/surveys/arab-barometer-wave-iv/
[vi] Arab Barometer, Wave 5, 2018-9. Available at https://www.arabbarometer.org/surveys/arab-barometer-wave-v/
[vii] Arab Barometer, Wave 2.
[viii] Arab Barometer, Wave 5.
[ix] Arab Barometer, Waves 2 & 5.
[x] Arab Barometer, Wave 2.
[xi] Arab Barometer, Wave 5.
[xii] Arab Barometer, Waves 2 & 5.
[xiv] Arab Barometer, Wave 5.
[xvi] Arab Barometer, Wave 3.
[xviii] Arab Barometer, Waves 2 & 5.
[xxi] Arab Barometer, Wave 5.
[xxiii] Arab Barometer, Wave 3.
[xxiv] Arab Barometer, Wave 5.
[xxvi] Arab Barometer, Wave 2.
[xxvii] Arab Barometer, Wave 3.
[xxviii] Arab Barometer, Wave 4.
[xxix] Arab Barometer, Wave 5.
[xxx] Arab Barometer, Wave 4 & 5.
[xxxiii] Arab Barometer, Wave 3 & 5.
[xxxvi] Arab Barometer, Wave 1.
[xxxvii] Arab Barometer, Waves 2 & 4.
[xxxviii] Arab Barometer, Waves 4 & 5.
[xxxix] Arab Barometer, Wave 5.
[xlii] Arab Barometer, Wave 6. Available at: https://www.arabbarometer.org/surveys/covid-19-survey/