A Different Democracy

19 march 2015

Reinforcement of Traditional Values in the Middle East After the Breakup of the Soviet Union

Veronika Kostenko is a research fellow with the Laboratory of Comparative Social Studies (LCSS) at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

Eduard Ponarin is Tenured Professor at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, and Head of its Laboratory for Comparative Social Research.

Pavel Kuzmichev is an intern researcher at LCSS.

Resume: A majority of people in the Middle East either share extremely conservative views regarding democracy and women’s rights, or feel the need for political and social reform and call such aspirations “democracy,” while real knowledge of how democracy works is still rudimentary.

An explicit focus on modernization was a crucial component in the Soviet Union’s influence on satellite countries in the Arab World. Yet the global superpower’s disappearance from the geopolitical scene facilitated processes that have reinforced a radical agenda in those Arab countries previously dependent on the Soviet Union or oriented towards the socialist system. Despite the spread of higher education, this transformation is particularly noticeable among young people. Their views on human rights and, above all, the position of women have come under the considerable influence of fundamentalists backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. Although people in those countries seemingly profess a positive attitude towards democracy, a closer look reveals that the Arab understanding of democracy differs greatly from that in the West. Not a single Arab society can be called an electoral democracy. Moreover, Arab countries lack traditional value-based prerequisites for democratic reform. It is highly likely that all of these countries will remain authoritarian regimes for quite some time.


Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, the Arab World has enjoyed the unflagging attention of politicians and researchers around the globe. The mass media have persuaded the public at large to see the region as a den of terrorism; and after the events of the Arab Spring – the wave of unrest and revolutions in the Middle East that started in 2012 – as another destabilizing factor for international politics. Very often the participants in debates about the region lack knowledge about the real situation, which is largely a result of the region’s seclusion and scarcity of impartial information about the processes underway.

The first credible data from opinion polls conducted in Middle Eastern countries appeared fairly recently, in 2009, when the Arab Barometer survey, launched in 2006 by an international team of researchers in seven countries in the region, presented its initial findings. The authors of this article – a research group from the Moscow Higher School of Economics – used these data to analyze the attitude of people in Arab countries towards democracy.

In order to understand how the values shared by people in Arab countries are changing, we compared the attitudes of different age groups using a method that has been most effective when earlier statistics are unavailable. Sociologists maintain that political preferences usually form between 20 and 25 years of age. Later an individual’s ideas of politics and society change little even if those around the individual adhere to a different view. We believe the views of senior citizens represent the public opinion that existed in the country when those citizens were young.
Since the very term “democracy” can be understood differently, we compared the opinions of respondents regarding the desirability of democracy with opinions of women’s rights and also whether such countries as Saudi Arabia are democratic or not.

Fig. 1 depicts the average values received for responses to the question “Do you believe that your country is a democracy?” The values range from 1 (a totalitarian regime) to 10 (a democracy). People in Arab societies were asked to assess the level of democracy in their country and also in Israel, China, the United States, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran.

Fig. 1. Level of democracy as rated by citizens of 7 Arab societies (figures and size of circles show the average value for each country).



The figure shows that people in Arab countries quite often rate the degree of democracy in a country not according to formal parameters (free elections, free expression of popular will, separation of powers, reliance on the constitution, observance of human rights, etc.), but by a general positive or negative perception of a country formed by the mass media. For instance, Moroccans consider Saudi Arabia a more democratic society than Turkey, Israel, or even their own country. Incidentally, many trends correspond to the Western perception: in all surveyed Arab societies Japan is seen as a fairly democratic country, while Saudi Arabia receives generally low marks. For this reason it would be wrong to say that people support democracy in Arab societies. That would entail misreading the real situation in the region.

In order to verify the results of the survey on democracy we analyzed the opinions of respondents regarding a different subject – attitudes towards the position of women in society. Although this issue seemingly concerns a completely different aspect of life, research data confirm that it is directly related to support for democracy. Attitudes towards the position of women reveal the extent the declared support for democracy in Arab societies is related to an understanding of basic human rights, without which the concept of democracy appears emasculated. We analyzed attitudes towards gender equality in seven Arab societies using such factors as strength of religious beliefs and support for democracy. We also compared the results using such parameters as gender, age, and education.


In studying the impact of demographic variables, education, and religious beliefs on support for gender equality, we used multiple-linear regression model.

Fig 2. Support for gender equality in 7 Middle Eastern Arab countries.


Formal modeling confirms that women in Arab Middle Eastern countries (and worldwide) are far more inclined to support gender equality than men. The effect of education is also predictable: people with more education tend to support equality far more often. As for distinctions among countries, Lebanon shows the most egalitarian approach towards gender issues, while Yemen appears to be the most conservative country in the surveyed group (in terms of women’s real rights Yemen is in last place globally.) As for pro-democracy sentiment, Kuwait is the most liberal country and Morocco is second.

The frequency of reading the Quran, used in this research as a benchmark of religiousness, is inversely proportionate to support for gender equality. In other words, the most religious Muslims adhere to the most conservative ideas concerning the position of women in society, which agrees with general global trends.

Statistical analysis indicates that senior citizens in Arab countries are more disposed towards gender equality than young people, which runs counter to trends observed in other countries undergoing modernization. Young people between 25 to 34 tend to profess more conservative views, while the oldest age group (over 65 years of age) has the most egalitarian attitude towards gender equality.

Fig. 3 Attitudes of different age groups towards the position of women in Arab countries (the higher the index, the more liberal the attitude)


This result of the survey is quite unexpected from the standpoint of the modernization theory developed by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel. An analysis of the data gathered by the World Values Survey, a project encompassing hundreds of scholars globally, indicates that older people are more conservative in almost all respects and nearly all societies, while young people tend to be more open to novelties and do not abide by traditional conservative rules and values in all respects as living standards increase. The surprising trend identified in the Middle East deserves special research, but already at this point we can offer several explanations relying on historical arguments for this phenomenon.

The region’s political history is significant. The political views of the senior generation in Arab countries were shaped during anti-colonial wars in the 1950s and the 1960s. The Arab peoples’ struggle for independence from imperial countries was a secular rather than religious movement. Also, pan-Arabism and nationalism – and not pan-Islamism – were the prevailing ideology. A large share of the newly founded Arab states enjoyed the financial and ideological backing of the Soviet Union, which promoted gender equality (the well-known slogan of the “emancipated woman of the Orient”) and had its own extensive experience in eradicating the lack of opportunities for women in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Young people between the ages of 15 to 25 absorbed those ideas. The socialization theory postulates that social norms adopted at this age last throughout an individual’s life and undergo only slight changes, if any.

As for the most conservative generation (born in the late 1970s and early 1980s), in accordance with the same theory two historical events may have influenced their attitude towards gender equality. The end of the Cold War meant that some societies in the Middle East remained stagnant after Soviet financial support dwindled, and then dried up (as in Yemen for instance). Also, the rapid rise of the international prestige of the United States and its geopolitical allies followed rapidly. Notably, U.S. partners in the Middle East mostly included conservative oil-producing Gulf monarchies. Having at their disposal considerable ideological capital in the Muslim world (the main centers of Islam – Mecca and Medina – are in Saudi Arabia), those countries received an opportunity to translate their extremely conservative views to the entire Middle East via television and a network of theological schools and colleges.

It would be interesting to see how exactly the reinforcement of traditional values among young Arabs correlates with the revolutionary processes that started in the region in 2012. At first glance, these two tendencies appear to contradict each other, because a desire to toss out an outdated, archaic regime usually goes hand in hand with the growth of education and emergence of a generation of young people sharing liberal values. However, as the analysis of available data indicates, despite a growing level of education, young Arabs profess far more conservative views than people of older generations (who are far less educated). To analyze the mutual correlation of these phenomena we used more complex statistical techniques (cluster analysis and negative binomial regression).


In order to study the interrelation of support for democracy and gender equality all respondents were grouped into five categories according to their attitude towards these two issues. The results of this analysis (distribution of respondents by their likes and dislikes in a two-dimensional space) are shown in Table 1. It should be noted that the characteristics of each category are probabilistic and not absolute.

Table 1. Attitude towards democracy and gender equality in 7 Arab countries


Note: About 32 percent of respondents have no specific attitude to these issues. For that reason they belong to the central cluster not represented in the table.

Cluster A unites people who are equally supportive of democracy and liberally minded about gender equality. They account for about 17 percent of respondents and mostly include women over 45 years of age. There are few representatives of the generation aged 25-34 in this cluster. One might assume with a high degree of probability that these people have masters’ degrees and reside in Lebanon or Morocco.

Cluster B represents those for whom gender equality is important, but whose support for democracy is low. This group of respondents makes up 13 percent. These are people of various age groups, mostly women without higher education. Most representatives of this group live in Jordan, with far fewer residing in Morocco, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Cluster C is a group of people who are negative about gender equality, but at the same time support democracy (18 percent of the surveyed respondents). In that group there are significantly more young men (under 35) with the lowest level of education (including people who are illiterate). There are noticeably fewer people sharing such views in Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Algeria.

Cluster D unites opponents of democracy and gender equality; they make up 19 percent of all respondents. These are mostly young men (under 34 years of age), while those over 55 are practically absent from this group. As a rule, this group has graduated from a secondary or vocational school. Almost none of them have a university education. Such people are represented in all countries, except for Morocco, Kuwait, and Lebanon.

The respondents in groups B and C support gender equality and are either negative towards democracy (B) or support it (C). The existence of two large groups with greatly varied opinions explains some of the observations mentioned in the previous section.


The distribution of countries by cluster is uneven. For instance, the populations of Lebanon and Morocco demonstrate similar trends. Many residents of these two countries form the upper right Cluster A. In other words, their ideas of democracy and gender equality are consistent and liberal, which in value terms puts this group closer to Western Europeans. These countries are represented in other clusters too (except for the most conservative Cluster D), but to a far smaller extent. The people of Lebanon are hardly representative of Cluster C (support for democracy in combination with rejection of gender equality); Kuwait’s results are similar to those in Lebanon, but the rates are much lower.
Palestine and Yemen can be put into one group, as opposed to Morocco and Lebanon. These countries are best represented in the lower left cluster (the most conservative one). Palestinians are found in the central cluster and Yemenis in the upper left one (C). Algeria is somewhat remarkable: it appears both in the lower left and upper right clusters, which points to considerable social polarization.

Support for democracy in the Arab World is related to gender egalitarianism at a very low level (the correlation ratio is 0.19). In some countries the correlation is positive, while it is negative in others. Statistical analysis has shown that in the surveyed societies there are groups of people who support both democracy and gender equality (approximately 17 percent); groups also include those who are either proponents of the two or reject both. This observation prompts the conclusion that the understanding of the term “democracy” in the Arab World is quite different from that in Western societies (where debates on this issue are still underway).

If respondents do not regard equality as part of a democratic system, one should be cautious about statements by many scholars that the majority of people in Arab countries are striving towards democracy, although without much success so far. In reality, we believe that a mere 17 percent of those surveyed want to live in a democratic country (the term implies liberal democracy, human rights, and emancipative values), and not 80 percent, contrary to what Mark Tessler and other researchers of the public opinion in that region claim. These people (in our survey represented in Custer A) are distributed very unevenly by country; in fact, most of them are in Lebanon and Morocco. A majority of these are women over 45 with higher educational degrees. Respondents between 25-34 years of age demonstrate a low level of support for gender equality and are practically absent from Cluster A.

This observation shows that a majority of people in the surveyed societies of the Middle East either share extremely conservative views regarding democracy and women’s rights, or feel the need for political and social reform and call such aspirations “democracy,” while real knowledge of how democracy works is still rudimentary. Possibly, this explains why the Arab Spring has failed to bring about a transition to democracy in any of the surveyed societies. Since emancipative values are still shared by only a small minority and in very few countries in the region, full-fledged democratic regimes will not likely emerge anytime soon.

The statistical analysis has revealed a remarkable relationship between age, education, and political preferences. In each given age group more highly-educated people share liberal views on the position of women. On the one hand, this indicates that the modernization process in the Arab World is continuing, albeit slowly. So is urbanization, and young people are becoming more educated than older generations. On the other hand, the region is experiencing the reverse trend towards conservatism. Despite a higher level of education, the younger generation is far more conservative than their parents and, in particular, their grandparents. Counter to theoretical expectations, this trend has not been observed anywhere else in the world except in Arab societies. Traditionalist views are especially characteristic of Arabs born between 1972 and 1982.

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