Arab Public Opinion: A Question of What They Want and Say

In conducting polls in the Arab world over a period of more than a decade, the question has never been, “When will people have reason to revolt?” but always, “Why haven’t Arabs revolted already?” I examine this discussion of public opinion, what the public says, and how opinions have changed that in my chapter, “Arab Public Opinion: What do they want?” in The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East.

The fact is that there was ample evidence in our own polls as well as others that the gap between public and government was increasing. Even more, there appeared to be a declining affinity with the state, which was in part a function of the identification of the state with rulers who had been in place for the entirety of the lives of many of their citizens, and in part as a function of the transnational media that has bolstered Muslim and transnational identity. When Arab revolutions began in Tunisia and Egypt, the surprise thus was less about the extent of public anger and intent and more about the public ability to turn that anger into effective mass mobilization that can challenge the regimes, especially in the absence of efficient organizations or effective leadership. Related to this was that, to the extent that revolutions were seen to be possible in the Arab world, they were expected to be led by Islamists who were best organized, not by the liberals who took the lead.

Few understood the full impact of the information revolution on political action, even if most understood the declining monopoly of the state over information. But it is still important to understand what we knew about what the public was saying to understand how it is likely to behave during the long transition that is underway in several Arab countries.