Political system preferences after the Arab Spring

By Mark Tessler, University of Michigan and Michael Robbins, Princeton University

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Uprisings Explained” workshop, October 2-3, 2014. 

A key factor leading to the Arab uprisings was a demand for better and more responsive governance. Central to this call was an emphasis on karāma, meaning dignity, which reflects a desire for political leaders who respect their country’s citizens and care about their welfare. As the composition of demonstrators in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere demonstrated, Arab citizens of nearly all backgrounds could agree on this demand. Public spaces were filled with individuals of all backgrounds – young and old, religious and secular, men and women, and rich and poor – gathered in a calling for a change to their political systems.

Yet, what type of change did Arab publics seek? In most countries there was no unified vision about the type of political system that would be most appropriate at the time of the Arab uprisings.[1] Although large majorities of people surveyed in the Arab world have expressed support for democratic rule, preferences about the ideal type of democracy have varied. Most importantly, the role for religion in politics has been widely contested.

Following the Arab Spring, elections were held in countries across the region, including in those that were only moderately affected by the uprisings. Islamist parties or candidates won the largest share in elections in a number of these contests, including in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco. Many factors accounted for their electoral success, ranging from the nature of electoral rules and the absence of credible alternatives to organizational and mobilizational capacity and the preferences of Arab electorates. Regardless of the reasons, however, these outcomes allowed citizens in some countries to experience Islamists in government while those in other countries, observing from a distance, could more clearly imagine what the election of an Islamist party might mean for their own country.

Moreover, although the protesters of the Arab Spring called for dramatic political changes, today relative few Arabs favor rapid reforms. Across 10 of 12 countries where data are available, at least 7-in-10 respondents say that political reforms should be implemented gradually instead of all at once.[2] The case of Algeria is particularly instructive; in the months following the Arab uprisings 54 percent of respondents said political reform should proceed gradually, but just two years later nearly 78 percent said the same.[3]

Clearly, the events since the Arab Spring have affected Arab public opinion. Yet, how has it changed attitudes about the best political system? Do Arab publics remain supportive of democracy in the wake of the difficulties associated with democratic transitions in a number of countries? Has the experience of Islamists in government led to an increase, or a decrease, in support for political Islam?

The Arab Barometer – a series of nationally representative public opinion surveys – offers insight into these questions. The first wave of surveys was conducted in 2006-2007, well before the events of the Arab Spring. The second wave took place from late 2010 through 2011 and spanned the initial events of the Arab Spring. Finally, the third wave, from late 2012 through early 2014, was carried out well after the initial uprisings. Comparing results from three waves, we find that support for democracy remains high but support for political Islam has decreased. Interacting these two trends, our main finding is that Islamist democrats – those who support both democracy and political Islam – are becoming scarcer across the region.

Support for Democracy

Arab publics continue overwhelmingly to support democracy. In all but one country surveyed, three-quarters or more of respondents in the third wave of surveys agree or strongly agree with the statement: A democratic system may have problems, yet it is better than other systems. This belief is most widespread in Egypt (85 percent) and Lebanon (85 percent), followed by Tunisia (83 percent), Jordan (81 percent), Palestine (81 percent), and Algeria (80 percent). Although lowest among the countries surveyed, overwhelming majorities also favor democracy in Iraq (76 percent) and Yemen (73 percent).

Evidence from other regions suggests that support for democracy tends to decline following democratic transitions.[4] Although the degree to which any Arab country has actually made such a transition is debatable, evidence from the Arab Barometer suggests that this conclusion does not apply in the present-day Arab world, where support for democracy has remained relatively stable since the Arab uprisings. In Jordan, Palestine, Algeria, and Iraq, support remains at similar levels in all three waves of the study. In Lebanon, support has declined 7 points from the first wave (2007) to the third wave (2012), but it remains among the highest in the region.

Levels of support for democracy have decreased the most in Iraq and Yemen, falling by 10 points and 9 points, respectively. Most likely, these changes are the result of domestic factors rather than regional factors. In Iraq, the failure of the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to build a strong and inclusive political system may have led a fair number of Iraqis to question whether democracy is suitable for their country – most notably Sunnis and other minority groups. In Yemen, the state remains extremely weak and is struggling to contain challenges from the Houthi rebellion in the north and the secessionist movement in the south, which may predispose many Yemenis to believe that an authoritarian government is needed to reestablish and maintain political order.

Support for Political Islam

A clear outcome of recent events is a decline in support for political Islam across the region. In the most recent waves of surveys, Arab publics are less likely than before to say that religious leaders should have a say over decisions of government. Algeria has witnessed the most dramatic decline with support for political Islam, falling from 60 percent in 2006 to just 34 percent in 2013. A similar decline has occurred in Egypt, where 37 percent supported political Islam in June 2011 compared to 18 percent in April 2013 (-19 points). Most other countries witnessed a similar decline, including Palestine (-15 points), Iraq (-11), Lebanon (-9), and Yemen (-7).

There are two exceptions to this trend: Jordan and Tunisia. In Jordan, support for political Islam has held relatively steady across all three surveys. In 2006, 52 percent favored political Islam compared to 47 percent in 2012, which represents a decline of 5 points and nearly falls within the margin of error of the surveys.

In Tunisia, there has been no significant aggregate change in support for political Islam. In October 2011, 25 percent of Tunisians favored a role for religious leaders in decisions of government, compared to 27 percent in February 2013. These results strongly suggest that the experience of living under a government headed by the Islamist Ennahda party did not lead to a significant decline in overall levels of support for political Islam.

Yet, these dichotomized results conceal an important trend: The intensity of attitudes about political Islam has changed markedly among Tunisians. Of the 75 percent of respondents who did not support political Islam in 2011, 56 percent disagreed with the statement that religious leaders should have influence over government decisions while 19 percent disagreed strongly. By 2013, a shift of about 20 points had taken place between these positions, with only 36 percent disagreeing and 38 percent disagreeing strongly. Thus, living for more than a year under the Ennahda-led government appears to have increased the intensity of attitudes about the place of Islam in political affairs.

Political System Preferences after the Arab Spring

Interacting attitudes toward democracy and political Islam provides additional insight into the political system preferences of Arab publics. Table 1 provides a summary of the four preferences for governance that are analyzed in this paper:

Democratic Secular; 2) Democratic with Islam; 3) Authoritarian Secular; and 4) Authoritarian with Islam. Table 2 presents the empirical results for these four types of governance. The table includes the six countries that were surveyed in all three waves and two additional countries, Egypt and Tunisia, which were only surveyed in wave two and wave three.

A comparison of survey results across the different waves shows a clear trend: Support for democracy with Islam has declined across the region. In six of the seven countries, support for this worldview is significantly lower in wave three than in previous waves. Compared to the first wave for which data are available in each country, support for democracy with Islam dropped significantly in Algeria (-28 points), Palestine (-15), Iraq (-13), Egypt (-11), Lebanon (-10), Yemen (-8), and Jordan (-7). Only in Tunisia did support for this form of political system remain unchanged.

Despite this general trend, the dynamics associated with an updating of political system preferences appear to vary by country, and some thoughts about this variation may be offered as a stimulus to further reflection.

In Algeria, the decline in support for democracy with Islam is largely the result of a dramatic increase in support for secular democracy (+25 points). This change – which primarily occurred between the first wave in 2006 and the second wave in April 2011 – may reflect that much of the support for political Islam in Algeria has for a long time been strategic in nature.[5] Thus, since the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia fell due to protests that were not driven by Islamist parties, Algerians seeking change may have decided that effective opposition to the non-democratic status quo was more likely to come from secular than Islamist forces. Beyond this, given the relatively small difference between levels of support in the second and third waves, the performance of Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia apparently did little to make Algerians think that Islam might be the “solution” after all.

In Palestine as well, declining support for democracy with Islam was largely replaced by support for secular democracy between the first and third waves. Again, the major change occurred between the 2006 survey and the 2010 survey, suggesting that some of the same dynamics were operating. In addition, the timing of the first survey – soon after Hamas’s victory in parliamentary elections – may have contributed to the higher level of support in this survey compared to those that followed.

The results have been similar in Egypt between the second wave, conducted in June 2011 before parliamentary or presidential elections, and the third wave, which was carried out in April of 2013 after Mohamed Morsi had been president of Egypt for 10 months. During this 22-month period support for democracy with Islam declined by 11 points, falling from 27 percent to 16 percent. This loss of support was accompanied by a 19-point increase in support for secular democracy. Meanwhile, support for authoritarianism with Islam also declined by 8 points. The surveys strongly suggest that living under a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood turned Egyptians strongly against the organization’s basic ideology.

In other countries, the nature of the shift in public opinion is less clear. In Iraq, for example, support for democracy with Islam has declined while support for secular authoritarianism has risen significantly between the first and third waves. In Lebanon, the shifts have been away from democracy with Islam to both secular democracy and secular authoritarianism.

In Yemen, the slight increase for support for democracy with Islam between the first and second waves (+8 points) had been reversed by the third wave. From the survey in February 2011 to December 2013, support for democracy with Islam declined by 16 points. As in Iraq and Lebanon, the shift in Yemen was not to a single alternative political preference.

Tunisia is the key exception to the general disappearance of Islamist democrats across the region. Support for democracy with Islam held steady at roughly 23 percent from October 2011 to February 2013. Meanwhile, support for secular democracy declined by 7 points. The clear difference from Egypt is likely linked to the strategies pursued by Ennahda compared to those of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Ennahda joined forces with other parties to form the Troika government and did not take actions to seize power. This more moderate governing strategy helped maintain levels of support for democracy with Islam despite the many hardships faced by Tunisians.


Regardless of whether domestic, regional or international factors are the cause, Islamist democrats are becoming more rare throughout the Middle East and North Africa. On the whole, Arabic publics are turning away from this political system and looking to alternatives to meet their demands for better and more inclusive governance. In fact, unlike in both previous waves of the Arab Barometer, in no country does democracy with Islam represent the plurality of public opinion in the third wave.

Although informed speculation has been offered about some of the domestic causes underlying this change, regional factors, at least in part, surely explain some of the variance as well. The Arab Spring offered Islamists a number of political openings, but, generally speaking, it appears that Arab publics did not look favorably on the performance of Islamists in power. Although the assignment of blame is contested, or at least debatable, Egypt slipped into greater instability and the economic situation of many citizens suffered under Morsi’s government. Morsi’s ultimate response was to seize vast powers and to declare himself above the law. Frustration over these political developments meant that within a year of his election, huge numbers of Egyptians were demanding his resignation.

Libya’s infighting and general instability can also be attributed in part to the role that Islamist actors have played in that country. If nothing else, Libya’s turbulence and instability certainly does not represent a model for those in other countries.

Even in Tunisia, where Ennahda did share power with other parties, the economy continues to struggle and security remains a challenge. The Troika government was replaced by a technocratic government that has fared somewhat better in public opinion. As such, Tunisia’s limited progress under Ennahda hardly looks like a successful example to citizens in other countries in the region.

There has been no clear example of the success of combining political Islam with democracy, which presents a challenge for its adherents. Although there has not been a significant corresponding uptick in support for authoritarianism with Islam among publics at large, it is unsurprising that some Islamist leaders across the region may conclude that this is the only means by which they can exact the change they envision. The overthrow of a democratically elected president in Egypt led Islamists to conclude, perhaps not only in Egypt, that they would never be given a fair chance to govern. More radical groups taking root across the region may therefore actually benefit from the decline of Islamist democrats across the region, as those who believe Islam and politics are fundamentally related lose faith in the democratic process as a means to realize their goals.

Michael Robbins (@mdhrobbins) is the director of the Arab Barometer (@arabbarometer). His work on Arab public opinion, political Islam and political parties has been published in Comparative Political Studies, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and the Journal of Democracy. Mark Tessler is the Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. He co-directs the Arab Barometer. He is the author of Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens (Indiana University Press, 2015).

Table 1. Summary of Political System Preferences


  Men of religion should have influence
over the decisions of government
Democracy, whatever its limitations, is better than any other political systems Strongly Agree/ Agree Disagree/           Strongly Disagree
Strongly Agree/ Democratic Democratic
Agree with Islam Secular
Disagree/ “Authoritarian” “Authoritarian”
Strongly Disagree with Islam Secular


Table 2. Political System Preferences in Eight Arab Countries


Country Political System Preference AB1 AB2 AB3 AB1-AB3 difference AB2-AB3 difference
Jordan Democratic Secular 40.9% 44.4% 43.3% 2.4% -1.1%
Democratic with Islam 44.4% 36.0% 37.8% -6.6% 1.8%
Authoritarian Secular   7.3% 10.3% 10.1% 2.8% -0.2%
Authoritarian with Islam   7.5%   9.3% 8.7% 1.2% -0.6%
Palestine Democratic Secular 37.5% 49.1% 50.3% 12.8% 1.2%
Democratic with Islam 45.1% 35.1% 30.6% -14.5% -4.5%
Authoritarian Secular   6.9%   9.6% 9.7% 2.8% 0.1%
Authoritarian with Islam 10.4%   6.1% 9.4% -1.0% 3.3%
Algeria Democratic Secular 35.1% 64.7% 60.4% 25.3% -4.3%
Democratic with Islam 48.0% 19.7% 20.0% -28.0% 0.3%
Authoritarian Secular   5.3%   8.2% 5.8% 0.5% -2.4%
Authoritarian with Islam 11.6%   7.4% 13.8% 2.2% 6.4%
Lebanon Democratic Secular 75.4% 70.3% 78.1% 2.7% 7.8%
Democratic with Islam 16.4% 15.6% 6.7% -9.7% -8.9%
Authoritarian Secular   6.9% 12.0% 13.1% 6.2% 1.1%
Authoritarian with Islam   1.3%   2.1% 2.0% 0.7% -0.1%
Yemen Democratic Secular 35.4% 30.5% 37.1% 1.7% 6.6%
Democratic with Islam 44.2% 51.8% 35.8% -8.4% -16.0%
Authoritarian Secular   7.7%   7.4% 12.8% 5.1% 5.4%
Authoritarian with Islam 12.7% 10.3% 14.4% 1.7% 4.1%
Iraq[6] Democratic Secular 44.4% 43.1% 45.5% 1.1% 2.4%
Democratic with Islam 42.9% 43.7% 30.0% -12.9% -13.7%
Authoritarian Secular   4.9%   9.1% 14.2% 9.3% 5.1%
Authoritarian with Islam   7.8%   4.1% 10.2% 2.4% 6.1%
Egypt Democratic Secular 51.0% 69.5% 18.5%
Democratic with Islam 27.1% 15.7% -11.4%
Authoritarian Secular 11.9% 12.2% 0.3%
Authoritarian with Islam 10.0% 2.5% -7.5%
Tunisia Democratic Secular 66.8% 60.2% -6.6%
Democratic with Islam 22.5% 23.0% 0.5%
Authoritarian Secular   7.9% 12.7% 4.8%
Authoritarian with Islam  2.8% 4.2% 1.4%


[1] Tessler, Mark and Michael Robbins. 2014. “Political System Preferences of Arab Publics.” In Marc Lynch (ed.), The Arab Uprisings Explained. New York: Columbia University Press.

[2] Arab Barometer. 2014. Third Wave (2012-2014). Available online at http://arabbarometer.org.

[3] Robbins, Michael. 2014. “Skipping the Arab Spring? The Arab Barometer Surveys a Changing Algeria.” Arab Reform Initiative. Available online at: http://www.arab-reform.net/skipping-arab-spring-arab-barometer-surveys-changing-algeria

[4] Bratton, Michael, Robert B. Mattes, and Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi. 2005.  Public Opinion, Democracy, and Market Reform in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Tessler, Mark. 1997. “The Origins of Popular Support for Islamist Movements.” In John P. Entelis (ed.), Islam, Democracy, and the State in North Africa. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

[6] Data for the first wave comes from the World Values survey conducted in 2006.

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