Arab public opinion is the best hope for solving crises in the Middle East

Published December 17th, 2015 - 07:00 GMT
A Yemeni child holds a sign during a demonstration against Saudi-led airstrikes. (AFP/File)
A Yemeni child holds a sign during a demonstration against Saudi-led airstrikes. (AFP/File)

Policymakers, scholars and analysts have three main options for guidance when analyzing events around the Middle East or deciding on policies to pursue: listen to Arab governments, listen to Arab public opinion or listen to foreign analysts and governments.

The advent of polling across the Arab world in recent decades has allowed us to gauge the sentiments of ordinary people in ways impossible for most of the years since the 1960s. Arab governments broadly did not allow their people to think independently and did not allow pollsters to measure their thinking.

This has changed and opinion polls regularly provide important insights into Arab sentiments and values. Listening to citizens and giving them an opportunity to participate in shaping their governments’ policies has been missing in all Arab countries without exception in modern Arab history, which helps explain the messy and violent conditions around the region today.

What do we learn listening to Arab citizens? Zogby Research Services, headed by the experienced Arab-American political activist James Zogby, just surveyed over 7,400 adults in six Arab countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Turkey and Iran, for an annual gathering hosted by the UAE government.

Zogby notes, “When you listen, you learn,” and what we learn is very instructive. Most interestingly, actual Arab public sentiments often go against the perceived realities about our region among Arab governments and Western elites. Both would benefit from listening to ordinary Arabs more regularly.

Here are a few noteworthy highlights from the poll results: People in Iraq are divided on their views of their own national institutions and regional players’ actions in their country. Sunnis mostly lack confidence in the Iraqi military, Iran’s involvement, or the Popular Mobilization units fighting Daesh, while Iraqi Shiites support the actions all of these.

The more significant finding, however, is the “remarkable consensus” on two important issues: that the cause of the Iraq conflict is that “the government in Baghdad does not represent all Iraqis,” and that, “the best way to ultimately resolve the conflict ... is forming a more inclusive representative government,” not partition, with Kurds also supporting a representative central government.

I would guess that this Iraqi desire for inclusive, representative governance within a unified national framework is mirrored in most Arab countries wracked by war and sectarian tensions, such as Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria. Citizens probably hold much more rational and constructive views on how to resolve those conflicts than warlords and officials, not to mention foreign powers, that now mostly shape policy.

The poll found that Daesh was mentioned as the most serious extremist problem facing the region in every country except Jordan, where Al-Qaeda is ranked first. More interesting – and significant for counterterrorism purposes – is that in most countries polled citizens identified “corrupt, repressive, and unrepresentative governments” and “religious figures and groups promoting extremist ideas” as the most important causes of religious extremism.

In parallel to this focus on domestic issues driving extremism, citizens ranked “anger at the US” at the very bottom of their list in every country (perhaps due to “the US’s lighter regional footprint,” Zogby notes). In other words, the hard work to counter extremism and terrorism must be done within Arab states primarily, and should focus on promoting better governance, to remove the issues of discontent and humiliation that religious and political extremists exploit to recruit members to their groups.

The most effective way to defeat extremism, respondents in every country said, was by “changing the political and social realities that cause young people to be attracted to extremist ideas,” followed by, “countering the messages and ideas” of extremist groups.

The poll found what every other poll has found in recent decades: that people across the Arab world care deeply about Palestine. In every Arab country, the Palestinian situation was at or near the top of the list of issues important to people. Overwhelming majorities in every country, except Iraq, wanted their governments to provide more aid to the Palestinians and achieve national reconciliation.

Arabs polled broadly remain willing to live in peace with Israel if Palestinians also achieve their national rights, but the behavior of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has generated doubts in Arab public opinion about Israel’s desire for coexistence. Two-thirds of people in Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are ready to make peace, but almost half their citizens doubt Israel’s desire for peace. In Egypt and Iraq strong majorities reject peace with Israel.

If you listen, you learn, and what you learn from ordinary men and women across the Arab world is that they value stability, peace, democracy, coexistence, national unity and justice in Palestine.

By Rami G. Khouri

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