Advances in Applied Sociology
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 37-46
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/aasoci) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/aasoci.2013.31005
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 37
Arabs Want Democracy, but What Kind?
Sabrina de Regt
Research Centre for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium
Received October 23rd, 2012; revised November 20th, 2012; accepted December 8th, 2012
In recent times, Arabs have shown the world that they are ready for additional democratic reforms. We
must nevertheless question what democracy means to them. How do they think about the role of religious
leaders in democracy? Does democracy imply extending the rights of women? How do Arabs see the con-
nection between democracy and a prosperous economy? Answers to these and similar questions are im-
portant in order to interpret the high levels of support for democracy that are being observed in the Arab
world, as well as the possible outcomes of the Arab spring. It is also important to examine whether Arabs
have a common understanding of democracy or whether they disagree on the form that democracy should
take. Wide variations in the meaning of democracy could retard the process of democratization. In this ar-
ticle, public opinion data from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Morocco are used to develop a detailed image of
what democracy means to Arabs.
Keywords: Democracy; Religiosity; Women; Economy; Arab World; World Values Survey
The world recently witnessed the Arab Spring. Millions of
people demonstrated, sometimes at the risk of their own life, for
more democracy and human rights. It is assumed that democra-
cies can survive only if the public supports the principles of de-
mocracy (e.g. Stevens, Bishin, & Barr, 2006). Several authors
have shown that levels of support for democracy in Arab coun-
tries are high (e.g. Inglehart, 2003; Norris & Inglehart, 2004). It
is not clear, however, which type of democracy Arabs want. The
figures that indicate high levels of support for democracy are
difficult to interpret if we do not know exactly how Arabs un-
derstand democracy. It is not clear whether the democracy for
which there is so much support in Arab countries resembles de-
mocracy as it is known in many Western countries. It is possible
to embrace democracy as an abstract ideal while also subscribing
to illiberal convictions that could include banishing dissident
voices or disliked groups from the public sphere (Schedler &
Sarsfield, 2007). A full understanding of the way in which Arabs
view democracy is essential in order to predict the implications
of the Arab Spring for the likelihood of democratization in the
Arab World, as well as the possible consequences that such a
process could have for international relations. This article pre-
sents a detailed empirical picture of how publics in Egypt, Iraq,
Jordan, and Morocco view democracy.
Difficulties Defining Democracy
Scholars have long theorized about what democracy exactly
is. Some authors provide minimalist definitions. For example,
Schumpeter (1942) argues that a democratic method requires
granting individuals the power to decide by means of a com-
petitive struggle for the people’s vote. Other authors adopt a
more maximalist definition, as does Diamond (1999) who states
that competitive, multiparty elections are not sufficient for lib-
eral democracy. Other necessary components of democracy in-
clude political equality of citizens under the law, an independ-
ent judiciary, independent media, and civil liberties (see e.g.
Dahl, Shapiro, & Cheibub, 2003 for more discussion on defin-
The fact that scholars differ in their definitions of democracy
highlights the perils of adopting one-size-fits-all conceptualiza-
tions to denote mass views of democracy (Canache, 2006). Ne-
vertheless, remarkably few studies have been conducted on
how citizens exactly understand democracy (see e.g. Arens-
meier, 2010; Bratton & Mattes, 2001; Shin & Cho, 2010 for
notable exceptions). This is remarkable, not only because of the
lack of consensus among scholars, but even more because of
the practical implications of these understandings. Studies have
demonstrated that the relationship between Islam and democ-
racy depends upon how democracy is operationalized (Midlar-
sky, 1998). Most people around the globe say that they would
prefer a democratic political system (e.g. Norris, 1999). What
does this mean? What, if anything, does the abstract term de-
mocracy mean to ordinary people? What do they consider the
most defining components of democracy? Previous studies
have shown that most ordinary people consider the concept of
democracy highly complex and extremely difficult (Sigel,
1979). Studies conducted in established Western democracies,
Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa show that
about 20% to 25% of respondents cannot state what democracy
means (Dalton, Shin, & Jou, 2007). It can be argued that citi-
zens who have lived in countries that have been dominated by
authoritarian rule for decades are particularly likely to have
trouble defining democracy, as they have no experience with
such a political system. The first essential question to be an-
swered in this paper therefore concerns whether Arabs are ca-
pable of providing a definition of democracy.
Democracy and Islam
For many years, both democracy and public opinion polls
were found only in the advanced industrial nations of Western
Europe and North America (Diamond & Plattner, 2008). The
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Arab understanding of democracy could be expected to differ
from the Western view for several reasons. The first concerns
the role of Islam. In his controversial Clash of Civilizations
thesis, Huntington (1993) states that Islam and democracy are
incompatible. Most studies have shown that there are no sig-
nificant differences between the populace of Western countries
and that in Muslim religious cultures with regard to support for
democratic ideals (e.g. al-Braizat, 2002; Díez-Nicolás, 2007;
Dixon, 2008; Huang, 2005; Meyer, Tope, & Price, 2008; Norris
& Inglehart, 2004). It has also been shown that, at the individ-
ual level, support for democracy is not necessarily lower among
individuals with strong Islamic attachments (e.g. Rose, 2002;
Tessler, 2002a; Tessler, 2002b; Toros, 2010). Even if the level
of support for democracy is comparable, however, there can be
differences in the exact understandings of democracy held by
people from the Western world and by those in the Arab world.
While most democratic Western countries perceive that state
and religion should be separated, the majority of Arabs consider
democracy compatible with Islamic (Sharia) law (Grant & Tes-
sler, 2002). Survey results suggest that Arabs do not necessarily
prefer secular democracy: 56% of Arab respondents agreed that
religious authorities should influence government decisions,
while 44% disagreed (Jamal & Tessler, 2008). Other studies
have also found that significant proportions of Arabs with a
preference for a democratic political system believe that Islam
should play an important role in political affairs (Jamal, 2006;
Mogahed, 2006; Tessler & Gao, 2005; Tessler, Moaddel, &
Democracy and Economic Prosper i t y
Another notable issue concerns the consideration of democ-
racy in terms of economic outputs. The causes of the Arab
Spring include high levels of unemployment and poverty. Some
argue that the main reason that Arabs are calling for greater
democracy is that they believe this will improve their material
living conditions. Maslow’s (1943) famous Hierarchy of Needs
can explain why people would need enough food, water, clo-
thes, employment, and housing before they could value such
abstract elements of democracy as freedom, equality, and hu-
man rights. Research has shown that Muslims add an egalitar-
ian and consensual spin to their interpretations of democracy.
They are more likely than non-Muslims are to associate demo-
cracy with equality and justice (Bratton, 2003). In their investi-
gation of the Arab aspiration for democracy, Jamal and Tessler
(2008) report that half of their respondents emphasized eco-
nomic considerations over political rights and freedom when
asked to identify the most important factors that define democ-
racy. They conclude that, at least for some Arabs, the important
point is not so much that democracy is the “right” political sys-
tem in a conceptual sense than it is that democracy is a “useful”
form of government.
Democracy and Gender Equality
Women in Arab countries experience greater economic, po-
litical, and social disadvantage relative to men (Moghadam,
2004). For example, Arab countries have the worst record for the
political representation of women. The latest available figures
show that about 11% of the representatives in both the lower and
upper houses of the legislatures in Arab States are women, as
compared to about 23% in Europe and the Americas1. As another
example, only 21.6% of women are employed in the Middle East,
as compared to 48% of the women in developed economic coun-
tries and the European Union are active on the labor market2.
Studies have shown that support for gender equality is closely
linked to a society’s level of democracy (Inglehart & Norris,
2003; Inglehart, Norris, & Welzel, 2002). Moreover, it is argued
that the subordination of women in Muslim-majority countries is
the most important factor underlying their democratic deficit
(Fish, 2002). In a test of the “clash of civilizations” thesis in 72
countries, Norris and Inglehart (2002) conclude that gender
equality is involved in the most fundamental fault line between
Western and Islamic countries. Rizzo, Abdel-Latif, and Meyer
(2007) demonstrate the need to refine this conclusion. First, sig-
nificant differences have been identified between Arab and non-
Arab Muslim societies with regard to the approval of gender
equality. More notably, in non-Arab Muslim countries, respon-
dents who supported gender equality were more likely to support
democracy, while the reverse was true in Arab countries. While
the majority of Arabs support democracy as a system of gover-
nance, they do not extend the idea of democracy to include wo-
Consensus on th e Meaning of Democracy
While there is considerable consensus in the United States
regarding the meaning of democracy in terms of liberty and
freedom, transitional democracies exhibit wide variation in
views of democracy (Camp, 2001). Low levels of consensus on
the form that democracy should take reduce the likelihood of a
successful transition to a democratic political system. Evidence
from Latin America shows that younger people and those who
are more educated and more informed are more likely to em-
phasize liberty when defining democracy (Moreno, 2001). Fur-
thermore, men in Latin America seem to stress liberty some-
what more than women do (Lagos, 2008). In Asia (e.g., Japan)
people above the age of 40 were most likely to define democ-
racy in terms of freedom and liberty, while younger respon-
dents offered few specific ideas regarding the meaning of de-
mocracy (Ikeda & Kohno, 2008). In this article, we examine
whether Arabs have a common understanding of democracy or
whether large variation exists regarding the defining character-
istics of democracy. In summary, this paper addresses the fol-
1) Are Arabs able to define democracy?
2) How do Arabs view democracy?
3) Is there consensus in Arab countries on the definition of
Data and Measurement
In order to answer these questions, we draw upon the fourth
wave (2005) of the World Values Survey (WVS). Data are avai-
lable for four Arab countries: Egypt (survey year: 2008), Iraq
(2006), Jordan (2007), and Morocco (2007). The WVS is often
employed to study democratic orientations around the globe
(e.g. Ciftci, 2010; Hofmann, 2004; Huang, 2005; Inglehart &
Norris, 2003; Norris & Inglehart, 2002). In 2005, the question-
naire introduced a question on the understanding of democracy:
2Women in labour markets: Measuring progress and identifying challenges.
International Labour Office. Geneva, 2010.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
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Many things may be desirable, but not all of them are essential
characteristics of democracy. Please tell me for each of the fol-
lowing things how essential you think it is as a characteristic of
democracy (1 = Not an essential characteristic of democracy
and 10 = An essential characteristic of democracy).
1) Governments tax the rich and subsidize the poor
2) Religious authorities interpret the laws
3) People choose their leaders in free elections
4) People receive state aid for unemployment
5) The army takes over when government is incompetent
6) Civil rights protect people’s liberty against oppression
7) The economy is prosperous
8) Criminals are severely punished
9) People can change the laws in referendums
10) Women have the same rights as men
Welzel (2011), Norris (2011) and other scholars have also
used this scale in order to examine how people understand de-
mocracy. This list is assumed to contain all or most of the fea-
tures that Arabs might consider important. If this list is income-
plete, we might draw suboptimal or even invalid conclusions
(Miller, Hesli, & Reisinger, 1997). Research using open-end
questions on the meaning of democracy does not suggest that
any broad categories are missing from this list (see e.g. Chu,
Diamond, Nathan, & Shin, 2008; Seligson, 2001 for a list of
categories based upon an open-ended question). We are there-
fore confident that the list we employed in this study allows us
to assess the meaning of democracy in the Arab world. The
most important feature of this question is its ability to rank the
defining components of democracy. Partial evidence exists re-
garding how Arabs view democracy. In this study, however,
information will be obtained on which components Arabs con-
sider most important for democracy and which components are
relatively less important.
Short Countr y Descri ption
Although all four countries are part of the Arab World, each
has its own specific socio-economic and political pathways. Be-
fore presenting the results on how the public in Egypt (popula-
tion 84 million), Iraq (31 million), Jordan (6.5 million), and Mo-
rocco (32 million) view democracy, we briefly discuss several
major differences between the countries.
Economy:3 Egypt has the highest per capita GDP ($6500),
followed by Jordan and Morocco ($5900 and $5100, respec-
tively). Iraq has a per capita GDP of about $3900. Closer exa-
mination of the GDP reveals that, while the service sector makes
the largest contribution to the total GDP in Egypt (45.8%), Jor-
dan (65.2%), and Morocco (51%), the industrial sector is the lar-
gest component of the economy (62.2%) in Iraq. Unemployment
is a major source of economic insecurity in many Arab countries.
The estimated unemployment rate in the four Arab countries va-
ries between 9.20% in Morocco to 15% in Iraq (the unemploy-
ment rate in Egypt and Jordan is about 12%). The high levels of
youth unemployment are particularly challenging. The CIA re-
ports that between one-fourth and a quarter of all young people
(15 - 24 years of age) are unemployed (Egypt, 24.8%; Jordan,
27%; and Morocco, 21.9%). About 20% of Egyptians, 25% of
Iraqis, 14.23% of Jordanians, and 15% of Moroccans are living
below the poverty line. The four Arab countries addressed in this
study have moderate levels of income inequality (Gini index:
Egypt, 34.4; Jordan, 39.7; and Morocco, 40.9).
Politics: Freedom in the World is an annual comparative as-
sessment of global political rights and civil liberties4. At the time
of the survey, as well as in the most recent assessment, Egypt
and Iraq were considered not free. At the time that the fourth
wave of the WVS was held, Jordan was rated as partly free,
although the most recent assessment released by the Freedom
House rates Jordan as not free. The reason stated for this status
change is the dismissal of the parliament by the king in 2009,
along with his announcement that elections would be postponed
and the increased influence of the security forces on political life.
From the beginning of the country ratings in 1972, Morocco has
been evaluated as partly free. This includes Morocco among the
countries with the most liberal reforms in the Arab world. In-
tra-regional variation exists with regard to the intensity and the
success of the revolutionary demonstrations of the Arab Spring.
The massive protests on Cairo’s Tahrir square and elsewhere in
Egypt resulted in Mubarak’s resignation from office in February
2011. Demonstrations also took place in Iraq, Jordan, and Mo-
rocco, albeit to a lesser extent. In response to the political unrest,
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he would
not run for a third term in 2014. In Jordan, protests resulted in
ministers being fired, and in Morocco, King Mohammed VI an-
nounced constitutional reforms, including more executive power
for the parliament and the designation of Berber as an official
Non-Response in Defining Essential Charac teristic s of
We must first examine whether Arabs are able to indicate
what, if anything, democracy means to them. In order to con-
clude whether Arabs differ in their understanding of democracy
from people living in free Western democracies, we also display
figures on people living in several Western democracies (i.e.,
Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, the
Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United
States). We do not deny that variation exists within Western de-
mocracies as well. Given that this paper concerns how Arabs
view democracy, however, the figures on people living in Wes-
tern democracies are included only as point of reference. Figure
1 displays the percentage of missing values on the question on
regarding the defining characteristics of democracy.
Percentage missing values on defining essential characteristics of de-
mocracy in the Arab World. Notes: Own calculations WVS2005.
3These figures were obtained from the CIA World Factbook: www.cia.gov/
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 39
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This figure reveals several notable differences between Arab
countries. The level of non-response is extremely low in Egypt,
even lower than in Western democracies. For most characteris-
tics, the percentage of missing values is below 1%, and it never
exceeds 3%. The number of missing values in Morocco is con-
siderably higher (twice the number of missing values in Iraq and
Jordan, and more than ten times higher in comparison to Egypt).
Arabs were most uncertain about the role of religious authorities
and the army. In general, we can conclude that most Arabs were
able to define democracy. Even though the non-response rate
was relatively high in Morocco, most of the respondents in this
country did indicate whether they considered several character-
istics as important characteristics of democracy. It would be in-
teresting to know why some Arabs did not answer the questions
concerning the content of democracy. This could have been be-
cause they did not know the answer, although it also could have
been that they refused to answer the questions, perhaps out of
fear for the authorities. Missing values in Iraq could be divided
into the categories “don’t know” and “no answer.”
As shown in Figure 2, the response “don’t know” was more
frequent as a reason for not answering the questions than was
refusal to answer. This indicates that lack of experience with de-
mocracy might offer a better explanation for the missing values
for respondents in the Arab world than does fear of the authori-
Do Arabs Have the Same Understanding of Democracy as
Do People Living in Western Democracies?
The data reveal that most Arabs are able to indicate what they
perceive as essential characteristics of democracy. The content
of these understandings is obviously important as well. Accord-
ing to Norris (2011), the items we employed in this study mea-
sure three different notions of democracy:
1) Procedural democracy: A Western notion covered by the
items referring to free elections, referenda votes, civil rights, and
2) Instrumental democracy: A notion covered by the items
addressing state aid, economic redistribution, prosperous econo-
my, and severe punishment of criminals;
3) Authoritarian democ racy: A notion emphasizing additional
powers of the military and religious authorities as defining fea-
tures of democracy.
Figure 3 displays the mean scores attached to the procedural
Percentage “Don’t Know” and “No Answer” on defining essential cha-
racteristics of democracy in Iraq. Notes: Own calculations WVS 2005.
Mean score importance procedural characteristics of democracy (1 = not
an essential characteristic and 10 = an essential characteristic). Notes:
Own analysis WVS2005. All differences p < .001.
(liberal) characteristics of democracy in Arab countries and in
established Western democracies.
As shown in Figure 3, no major discrepancies exist between
the Arab countries and Western democracies with regard to the
importance attached to the procedural elements of democracy. In
several cases (e.g., referendum), Arabs consider these elements
more important than Westerners do. The only notable exception
is gender equality. As shown in Figure 3, people living in Wes-
tern democracies were significantly more likely than Arabs were
to consider gender equality an essential component of democ-
racy. Respondents in Iraq were particularly likely to attach less
value to gender equality as a defining element of democracy.
Recall, however, that respondents used a 10-point scale to in-
dicate the extent to which they considered particular aspects es-
sential to democracy. This means that 5.5 is the neutral point of
the scale: scores below this point indicate that respondents did
not consider the aspect an essential characteristic, and scores
above this point indicate that respondents did consider it an
important element of democracy. Even though Arabs attach less
importance to gender equality than people from Western de-
mocracies do, Arabs thus do believe that it is an essential char-
acteristic of democracy.
Some believe that Arabs seek democracy because they believe
that such a political system would improve their living condi-
tions. Figure 4 indicates the relative value that Arabs attach to
the more instrumental components of democracy. Regarding re-
distributive policies, the results are mixed. Although Arabs do
seem to consider tax policies more important than people from
Western democracies do, these differences do not appear to the
same extent on the issue of state aid for unemployment. As the
figures show, Arabs consider a prosperous economy more im-
portant than do people living in Western democracies. The same
holds for the severe punishment of criminals. Arabs are more
likely than people from Western democracies are to consider this
a defining characteristic of democracy.
The largest difference between Arabs and citizens living in
Western democracies concerns the role of the army and religious
authorities in democracy. Recall that 5.5 is the neutral point of
the scale. As shown in Figure 5, respondents from all four Arab
countries addressed in this study consider it essential for de-
mocracy that religious leaders influence the political process.
This is in sharp contrast to respondents from Western democra-
cies, who feel that this is absolutely not an essential characteristic
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Mean score importance instrumental characteristics of democracy (1 =
not an essential characteristic and 10 = an essential characteristic).
Notes: Own analysis WVS 2005. All differences p < .001.
Mean score importance authoritarian understanding of democracy (1 =
not an essential characteristic and 10 = an essential characteristic).
Notes: Own analysis WVS 2005. All differences p < .001.
of a democratic system.
A similar difference can be observed with regard to the role of
the army. Whereas respondents in Western democracies state
that, in a democracy, the army should not take over in cases of
governmental incompetence, many Arabs feel that such a role
for the army is a defining component of democracy.
In Table 1, the components are ranked from most essential (1)
to least essential (10). As shown in the table, notable differences
exist between Arabs and people living in Western democracies.
Gender equality, elections, and civil rights are perceived as the
most important components of democracy in Western countries.
Whereas free elections are also important for most Arabs, gender
equality is among the least essential components for democracy.
Another noteworthy difference concerns the “populist” under-
standing of democracy. While Arabs perceive a prosperous eco-
nomy and punishing criminals severely as the most important
characteristics of democracy, people living in Western democ-
racies attach less value to these components. We should also
note that, although Norris (2011) and Welzel (2011) argue that
the WVS items measure different components of democracy,
explorative factor analysis of the data from the Arab countries
indicates a clear unidimensional pattern. For all four countries,
all of the items loaded on the same factor. This suggests that
Arabs do not distinguish between, for example, authoritarian and
liberal notions of democracy.
Ranking essential characteristics democracy in the Arab World.
Tax 4 7 3 8 8
leaders 7 10 9 9 10
Elections 1 2 4 2 2
unemployment 10 6 10 3 5
Army 9 8 8 10 9
Civil rights 5 4 5 6 3
Economy 3 3 2 4 7
Criminals 6 1 1 1 6
Referendum 2 5 6 5 4
equality 8 9 7 7 1
Notes: Own analysis WVS 2005.
Is There Widespread Consensus on the Interpretation of
Democracy in the Arab World?
For democratic transitions to succeed, it is important that peo-
ple largely agree on how new political institutions should be de-
veloped. To provide an indication of consensus in the Arab
world regarding the importance of several characteristics of
democracy, standard deviations are displayed in Figure 6.
The greatest variation seems to exist with regard to the in-
volvement of religious leaders, the welfare state (tax and state
aid in case of unemployment), the role of the army, and gender
equality. It is important to examine whether this variation is
random or whether structural differences exist between various
groups in Arab societies. More specifically, the previous graph
raises a number of questions. First, considerable variation exists
with regard to the involvement of religious leaders. This varia-
tion could be associated with personal levels of religiosity. Se-
cond, disagreement exists with regard to redistributive state po-
licies. It could be that people with lower economic status regard
the redistribution of wealth as more important than do those in
with a more advantageous social economic status. Third, the
results reveal differences with regard to whether the army should
take over in cases of governmental incompetence. Perhaps this
variation could be explained by age differences. In recent years,
significant changes have taken place in the countries addressed
in this study. For example, Hassan П was king of Morocco from
1961 until 1999. The Years of Lead under this king’s rule were
characterized by the disappearance, arrest, torture, and murder of
dissidents. In 1999, the more liberal King Mohammed VI suc-
ceeded his father. The military interventions of 2003 were one of
the most significant historical events to take place in Iraq. Events
like these may have influenced current views on the role of the
army. The issue of whether women should have the same rights
as men in democracy is the last issue on which the most dis-
agreement exists. It could be that women in the four Arabic
countries addressed in this study are more in favor of gender
equality than men are. These questions are addressed in the fol-
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Standard deviations on characteristics democracy in the Arab world (1 =
not an essential characteristic and 10 = an essential characteristic).
Notes: Own analysis WVS 2005. All differences p < .05.
First, we examine whether the influence of religious leaders is
more important to religious individuals than it is for non-reli-
gious individuals. We examined this possibility according to the
following question: Independently of whether you attend reli-
gious services or not, would you say you a re a religiou s person
(1), not a religious person, (2) or an atheist (3)5? In Egypt,
Jordan, and Morocco, about 92% of the respondents identified
themselves as religious, as compared to only 55% in Iraq. In
Egypt and Jordan, there was no significant difference (p > .05)
between religious and non-religious individuals regarding the
importance attached to religious authorities interpreting the law.
As shown in Figure 7, religious people in Iraq and Morocco do
attach greater importance to the influence of religious leaders in
The following issue concerns whether Arabs with lower so-
cio-economic positions regard the redistribution of wealth as
more important for democracy than do those with a more ad-
vantageous socio-economic position. We investigated this issue
according to the following question: Would you describe your-
self as belonging to the working class, the middle class, the
upper, or the lower class6? While most respondents in Morocco
and Iraq persons indicated belonging to the working class
(48.1% and 41.7%, respectively), most respondents in Egypt and
Jordan described themselves as belonging to the middle class
(44.5% and 51.3%, respectively)7. Figures 8 and 9 display the
relative importance attached to the two redistribution items by
people from different classes.
Figures 8 and 9 point to intra-regional variation regarding
Mean score importance attached to “Religious leaders interpret the law”.
(1 = not an essential characteristic and 10 = an essential characteristic).
Notes: Own analysis WVS 2005. All differences p < .001. Non-religious
persons include “not a religious person” and “atheist”.
Mean score importance attached to “receive state aid for unemployment”.
(1 = not an essential characteristic and 10 = an essential characteristic).
Notes: Own analysis WVS 2005. All differences p < .01.
5Religiosity is multidimensional, and its measurement is subject to contro-
versy. Because scholars of religiosity disagree regarding the measurement o
this concept, we replicated all of the analyses with different operationalisa-
tions (i.e., with importance of religion in life, the im
ortance of God in life,
the frequency of attending religious services, and praying). This did not alter
the main conclusions reported in this article (with a non-significant effect o
importance of God in Iraq as the only exception). The results are available
from the author upon request.
6Self-identification correlates significantly with educational level and house-
hold income in all four countries (question on income was not asked in
7Egypt: lower class (21.6%), working-class (19.6%), middle class (44.5%),
and upper class (14.3%).
Morocco: lower class (11%), working-class (48.1%), middle class (33.4%),
and upper class (7.5%).
Jordan: lower class (5.9%), working-class (15.3%), middle class (51.3%),
and upper class (27.5%).
Iraq: lower class (14.9%), working-class (41.7%), middle class (34.5%),
and upper class (8.9%).
Mean score importance attached to “tax the rich and subsidize the poor”
(1 = not an essential characteristic and 10 = an essential characteristic).
Notes: Own analysis WVS 2005. All differences p < .01.
class differences in the understanding of democracy. In both
Egypt and Morocco, people from higher classes were less likely
than those of lower socioeconomic status were to consider tax
policies and state aid in case of unemployment as defining
components of democracy. In Jordan and Iraq, the results re-
garding redistributive characteristics were mixed.
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A third issue concerns age differences in the perceived role of
the army in democracy. We created five age categories, each co-
vering ten years (e.g., 18 - 27 and 28 - 37). The sixth age cate-
gory includes people aged 68-97. Given an average life expec-
tancy of about 70 years in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Morocco (73,
68, 73, and 72 years, respectively; see www.data.worldbank.org),
too few cases would have been included in more detailed older
age categories. In Iraq and Jordan, no significant age differences
were found between respondents in these age categories with
regard to the role of the army (p < .05). Figure 10 shows the age
differences in Egypt and Morocco.
As shown in this figure, older Egyptians and Moroccans are
significantly more likely than their younger counterparts are to
consider it an important characteristic of democracy for the army
to take over in cases of governmental incompetence8.
The final issue concerns whether gender equality is a more
important component of democracy for Arab women than it is
for Arab men.
Gender differences in granting equal rights in democracy
appear to be relatively universal. As shown in Figure 11, wo-
men in all four Arabic countries consider equal rights for men
and women a more important characteristic of democracy than
men do. This gender gap is particularly large in Morocco: the
mean score for women is about 27% higher than is that for men
(11%, 17%, and 14%, respectively, in Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan).
Discussion and Conclusion
Do you think that having a democratic political system would
be a good way of governing your country? Is it important for you
to live in a democracy? How democratically is your country
being governed today? Many studies have analyzed answers to
questions containing the abstract term “democracy” (e.g. Esmer,
2002; Huang, Chang, & Chu, 2008; Massis, 1998). The answers
to such questions are difficult to interpret if we do not know
exactly how people understand democracy (Canache, Mondak,
& Seligson, 2001; Linde & Ekman, 2003). This is especially
problematic when comparing attitudes towards democracy
across contexts (Ariely & Davidov, 2011). This article shows
that the meaning of democracy can vary between individuals, as
well as between contexts. More specifically, it provides answers
to three main questions. First, it investigates whether Arabs are
able to explain what democracy means to them even though they
Mean score importance attached to “Army taking over” (1 = not an
essential characteristic and 10 = an essential characteristic). Notes:
Own analysis WVS 2005. All differences p < .01.
Gender differences in importance attached to gender equality in a de-
mocracy (1 = not an essential characteristic and 10 = an essential cha-
racteristic). Notes: Own analysis WVS 2005. All differences p < .001.
lack experience with this form of government. Although the
number of missing values was highest in Morocco (about 16%),
we can generally conclude that most Arabs are able to indicate
how they understand democracy. Analysis of non-response pat-
terns in Iraq indicates that non-response on defining democracy
in Arab countries is more likely the result of cognitive deficiency
than it is of political fear. Shi (2008) found similar results when
analyzing non-response in China.
Second, our analysis identifies the characteristics that Arabs
consider most important for democracy. Arabs tend to have a
populist notion of democracy (Welzel, 2011), in which a pros-
perous economy and severe punishment are perceived as the
most important elements of democracy. Although Arabs believe
that free elections are also very important for a democracy, they
attach less value to such procedural aspects as civil rights, lib-
erties, and gender equality. In this respect, they differ from ci-
tizens of Western democracies. The last major difference con-
cerns the role of the army and religious leaders. While Arabs
believe that political influence on the part of the army and reli-
gious leaders can be compatible with democracy, citizens of
Western democracies feel that these aspects are incompatible
Third, our study reveals considerable variation within Arab
societies. The greatest amount of variation was reported with
regard to the importance of redistributive policies, the influence
of religious leaders, the influence of the army, and gender equa-
lity. The results show that differences on these issues are not
random, but that they tend to be structural. More specifically, we
evaluated whether the belief that religious leaders should have
political influence was more important to religious people than it
was for non-religious people. The analysis reveals that, in Iraq
and Morocco, religious people are more likely than non-reli-
gious people are to feel that the influence of religious leaders is
important in democracy, while in Egypt and Jordan, the personal
level of religiosity is not associated with higher levels of support
for political influence on the part of religious leaders. Second,
we examine whether people from higher classes are less likely to
consider redistributive policies as essential for democracy. This
was true in Egypt and Morocco, but the results in Iraq and Jordan
on this issue were mixed. Third, the results show that, in Egypt
and Morocco, older people are more likely than younger people
are to consider it important for the army to be able to take over in
cases of governmental incompetence. No generation effects
8Regression analysis with age as a continuous variable yields identical re-
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were found in Iraq and Jordan. Finally, the results show that, in
all countries, women are more likely than men are to consider it
essential for democracy that men and women have equal rights.
Fruitful Paths for Future Research
The findings reported in this article identify several interesting
questions that could be examined in future research. Our study
reconfirms the existence of substantial differences between Arab
countries. It would be valuable to study the influence of coun-
try-level attributes on democratic orientations in Arab countries
(see also Tessler & Gao, 2009). Yuchtman-Yaar and Alkalay
(2007) showed that both religious heritage and economic context
influence modern values held by individual members of society
(see also Yuchtman-Ya’ar & Alkalay, 2010). Islamic heritage
(as compared to Protestant) seems to be associated with less
modern values, and higher levels of income per capita are asso-
ciated with values that are more liberal. As these authors noted,
more research on contextual effects is needed. In many Arab
countries, income inequalities have increased: the rich are get-
ting richer and the poor are getting poorer. For example, in 1997,
Jordan had a Gini index of 36.4. By 2007, this index had in-
creased to 39.79. It would be interesting to investigate whether
trends in income inequality could explain the attitudes of Arabs
towards redistributive policies in democracies. The latest avai-
lable Arab Human Development Report10 points to the structural
weakness of many Arab economies and the resulting economic
insecurity among citizens. It would be interesting to investigate
whether macro-economic factors could explain why so many
Arabs feel that a prosperous economy is the most important
component of democracy. Levels of ethnic fractionalization dif-
fer between Arab countries (Alesina, Devleeschauwer, Easterly,
Kurlat, & Wacziarg, 2003; Fearon, 2003). Future research could
investigate whether Arabs living in countries characterized by
high levels of heterogeneity are more likely to prefer the army to
have a role in democracy.
This article draws upon an analysis of data from only four
Arab countries. Although intra-regional variation is partly re-
flected in these four countries, caution is advised when gener-
alizing the results to the entire region. For some Arab countries,
(e.g., Libya, Mauritania, Oman, & Syria), hardly any survey data
on political issues are available. It is hoped that survey data will
become available from these countries, thus allowing research
on the extent to which the analysis presented in this article is
representative of the entire Arab world. In this article, the WVS
is used to answer our research questions. Another important
source of representative data from the Arab world on political
attitudes is the Arab Democracy Barometer (www. arabba-
rometer.org). The WVS and the Arab Barometer together pro-
vide data for Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon,
Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The number of
countries is expected to increase in the future. Both the WVS and
the Arab Barometer launched a new wave in 2010/2011, for
which data will become available in the near future. This should
facilitate and stimulate detailed research on the influence of both
macro and micro determinants of democratic attitudes in the
The results reported in this article are based upon data from a
single wave. Cross-time analyses in Arab countries are rare (for
exceptions see e.g. Meyer, Rizzo, & Ali, 2007; Moaddel, 2010;
Moaddel & Abdul-Latif, 2007). It would nevertheless be inter-
esting to examine support for democracy across time. Dalton et
al. (2007) examined changes in the understanding of democracy
following a democratic transition in seven countries. They report
that the percentage of respondents answering “don’t know” si-
gnificantly declined following a democratic transition and that
institutional and political processes had become more important
in people’s understanding of democracy. As more data become
available in the future, it can be examined whether the under-
standing of democracy in the Arab World changed in the wake of
the Arab Spring. Such investigations could study whether the po-
pulace in the Arab World has become more supportive of de-
mocracy and whether their interpretation of democracy has
shifted in the direction of the liberal Western model of democ-
racy. We have shown that Arabs believe it an essential charac-
teristic of democracy that the army should take over in cases of
governmental incompetence. In Egypt, Mubarak’s authoritarian
regime was replaced by an authoritarian rule of the army. In-
teresting questions in this regard concern whether this experi-
ence changed the way Arabs feel about the role of the army in
democracy. Answers to these and other questions should be for-
mulated in future research.
Another interesting path for further research regards the con-
sensus on the form that a democracy should take. It is important
to develop a detailed picture of structural variation within Arab
societies. In this article, we examine the effects of religiosity,
class, age, and gender on the understanding of democracy. Other
factors might influence the ways in which people comprehend
democracy. One example concerns the difference between the
elite and the masses. Research in post-Soviet societies demon-
strates that, while the elite tend to emphasize law and order and
the rule of law, citizens stress freedom in their understanding of
democracy (Miller et al., 1997). It would be interesting to in-
vestigate whether this finding could be generalized to Arab
countries or whether people with more experience travelling to
Western countries are more likely to emphasize procedural and
liberal aspects of democracy. An additional question for future
investigation concerns whether people with high levels of social
and economic mobility in Arab countries are less likely to feel
that redistributive policies are important for democracy. Other
factors of interest for further research include media consump-
tion, interest in political affairs, and ethnicity.
What Can We Tell about the Process of
Democratization in the Arab World?
Perceptions of democracy do have consequences for the pub-
lic’s expectations of and satisfaction with political developments
(Camp, 2001). The results reported in this article could have
practical implications for the Arab world. The finding that Arabs
tend to equate democracy with a prosperous economy might be
problematic for the emergence of democratic systems in the
Arab world. On the one hand, Arabs might become dissatisfied
with future democratic transitions if they are not accompanied
with better material living conditions. On the other hand, support
for democracy might decrease as the economic situation in Arab
countries improves. The relationship between a prosperous
economy and the emergence of democratic institutions is unclear
(Glaeser, La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes, & Shleifer, 2004). It re-
mains to be seen whether and to what extent the process of
democratization and economic conjecture are intertwined in the
10http://www.arab-hdr .org/p ublications/oth er/ahd r/ahdr20 09e.pdf
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
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The position of women in Muslim-majority countries is a
highly debated topic (Meyer, Rizzo, & Ali, 1998). As this article
shows, Arabs are less likely to consider gender equality an
essential characteristic of democracy than are people living in
free Western democracies. In Jordan and Morocco, respondents
ranked gender equality seventh out of the ten aspects of de-
mocracy; it was ranked eighth in Egypt and ninth in Iraq. In
March 2012, a 16-year-old Moroccan girl committed suicide
after she was forced to marry a man who had raped her. The
finding that equal rights for men and women play such an un-
important role in the democratic perceptions of many Arabs
might raise doubts concerning whether the process of democra-
tization in the Arab world would extend the rights of women. We
must note, however, that Arabs in general do not appear to be
opposed to gender equality. Although they do not see it is one of
the most important aspects of a democracy, they still believe that
gender equality is a necessary component of democracy. The
extent to which women will have a permanent stake in shaping
democracy in the Arab world remains to be seen.
There are multiple normative models of democracy, including
libertarian democracy, liberal democracy, and socialist democ-
racy (see e.g. Fuchs, 1999 for a short review). One of the most
notable differences between Western and Arab countries con-
cerns the influence of religious leaders in democracy. The first
parliamentary elections after Mubarak’s reassignment were won
by the Muslim Brotherhood (Freedom and Justice Party), which
is known for its slogan “Islam is the Solution.” This victory is
feared by many people in the West, in part because of the party’s
promotion of Sharia law. The fact that many Arabs prefer Islam
to play a role in political processes is partly a reaction to its pre-
vious suppression by secular colonization powers, secular au-
thoritarian Arab leaders, and economic deprivation (see e.g.
Tessler, 1997 for more information on support for Islamist
movements in Arab societies and Breznau et al. (2011) for
differences between Christians and Muslims in preference for
religious political leaders). Jamal and Tessler (2008) observe
that Arabs who prefer a secular democracy do not differ sig-
nificantly with respect to several democratic orientations (i.e.,
respect for political diversity, social tolerance, and gender equa-
lity). This indicates that, despite what many people in the West
might think, democratic systems in which religious leaders have
political influence might not necessarily have undemocratic
outcomes. We agree with Camp (2001) that neither the United
States nor any long standing Western-style democracy can lay an
exclusive claim to defining the meaning of democracy. Given
that most Arabs would prefer a democratic political system, we
hope that the Arab Spring will result in the emergence of more
democracies in the Arab world. Time will tell whether political
influence on the part of Islamic leaders can be compatible with
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