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  • After the Arab SpringCaught in History’s Crosswinds
  • Michele Dunne (bio)

The handful of political openings that occurred in Arab countries after the 2011 uprisings have yielded a bitter harvest that Arabs and non-Arabs alike are struggling to comprehend. Tunisia is a nascent democracy, but it is fragile and torn by savage terror attacks. Libya and Yemen have broken down amid militia strife that has become a stage for proxy warfare. Syria is being consumed by the flames of a terrifying, multisided civil war that has seen the use of chemical weapons and the rise of a terrorist state in eastern Syria and western Iraq. And Egypt has undergone a vicious resurgence of authoritarianism. Observers will probably still be arguing about what went wrong when the next wave of change hits the region.

Nonetheless, it is now nearly five years since a young Tunisian fruit vendor’s December 2010 self-immolation lit a fuse that rocked the Arab world, and one can begin to discern what happened and what did not. Some on-the-fly diagnoses of the Arab countries’ failure to build more inclusive political institutions and processes will likely stand the test of time. In Egypt and Yemen, too many strongmen from the old regime remained in place or at least in a position to undermine the new order, with the help of other regional powers eager to prevent that new order from succeeding.

Yet the essays that follow go a long way toward demolishing certain other early analyses of what went awry following the “Arab Spring.” Arab publics never really wanted democracy in the first place, one argument goes; they wanted economic betterment and gave up on the idea of [End Page 75] democratic governance as soon as insecurity loomed and material benefits failed to appear. Another argument is that the Arab uprisings were all just so much hype, a soap bubble of social- and broadcast-media enthusiasm that quickly collapsed.

Public-opinion trends in countries that experienced popular uprisings in 2011 have been hard to track and subject to widely divergent claims. Did citizens of such countries initially want democracy, only to sour on the idea after watching their neighbors’ countries—or their own—succumb to instability and strife? Some of the competing claims about this have been based on assessments of confusing events such as the 2013 mass demonstrations against Egypt’s first freely elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.1 Other claims rest on polls of limited usefulness that asked questions in a particular way—for example whether democracy should be instituted “in the next year” (of course that made people in post-Qadhafi Libya nervous, and they tended to say no).2 And Arab media have sometimes provided a distorted lens through which to view public opinion, due to deliberate manipulation or strong pressures on reporters or owners of media.

The lack of reliable opinion polling is a major obstacle to understanding which views prevail in Arab countries. The Arab Barometer, which has been surveying people in the Arab world since 2006, helps to fill the gap. The contribution in this issue by Michael Robbins, the Arab Barometer’s director, compares the answers that respondents gave to questions about democracy in both the Barometer’s second and third waves (surveys carried out in 2010–11 and 2012–14, respectively). The survey takers covered nine Arab countries: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen.

The findings that Robbins distills from this opinion research are surprising. Public support for democracy (as indicated by those willing to say that it is a “good” or “very good” system of governance) held steady through both waves at a robust 70 percent or more across most countries. This is particularly striking since the second wave reached completion only after civil war had erupted in Libya and Syria, a military coup had toppled Morsi in Egypt, and Tunisia had come under terrorist assault. Storms abounded, in other words, but Arab publics would not give up the ship and remained on board with democracy. Arab citizens were only too well aware of the economic dislocations and security problems that came on the heels of...