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Exclusive: Guardian-YouGov poll suggests majority in nine countries across the Arab world feel inequality has increased
The Guardian – by Michael Safi in Tunis
A majority in nine countries across the Arab world feel they are living in significantly more unequal societies today than before the Arab spring, an era of uprisings, civil wars and unsteady progress towards self-determination that commenced a decade ago, according to a Guardian-YouGov poll.
Pluralities in almost every country agreed their living conditions had deteriorated since 2010, when the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi is credited with kicking off mass demonstrations and revolutions that spread across the region. Reverberations of that moment continued into 2019 with the overthrow of Sudan’s former dictator Omar al-Bashir and large protest movements in Lebanon, Algeria and Iraq.
The results of the far-reaching poll of 5,275 people across genders and age groups suggest the feelings of hopelessness and disfranchisement that have fuelled this turbulent chapter in the Middle East have only increased, even if most people do not regret the protest movements – except for, notably, in the countries where they led to civil war.
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The feeling of being worse off than before the Arab spring was unsurprisingly highest in Syria (75% of respondents agreeing), Yemen (73%) and Libya (60%), where street protests gave way to civil wars and foreign intervention that have shattered each country .
The survey also covered Egypt and Tunisia, where long-serving authoritarian rulers were overthrown in early 2011, as well as Algeria, Sudan and Iraq, which initially witnessed only small-scale unrest a decade ago, but where significant anti-regime movements have since emerged.
Fewer than half of those surveyed in Egypt, Iraq and Algeria said they were worse off compared with before 2010; but in none of the three did more than a quarter of people say they were better off either.
A generational divide
In some countries, it was the youngest generation of adults – those who will inherit Arab societies and with less memory of life before the revolutions – who were the least negative about the changes.
Algerians aged between 18 and 24, along with their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq, were all significantly less likely to say the mass protests and revolutions of the era were regrettable, according to the poll.
Their parents were generally more pessimistic, with pluralities in each of the eight countries agreeing that children growing up today face worse futures than those growing up in the years before the Arab spring era.
An unhappy democracy
Even in Tunisia, a “success story” where democratic institutions have withstood assassinations and infighting, there was deep disillusionment.
Twenty-seven per cent of those polled agreed they were better off since the revolution there, the highest among the countries surveyed. But amid stagnant economic growth and high unemployment, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, half of Tunisians said they were now worse off.
Dramatic improvements in civil rights in Tunisia, where 86% of people said there was now more freedom to criticise the government and half said there was less chance of unlawful arrest, did little to dissolve a sense of dissatisfaction in the Maghreb country.
Social contracts still broken
The belief that social contracts had been torn up, with a small elite enriched at the expense of the majority, helped to have fuel the revolutions of the era. The poll showed that perception has deepened since 2010, and inequality is significantly worse.
This was the view of 92% of Syrians, the highest result for any question in the survey, followed by 87% of Yemenis and 84% of Tunisians. At least seven in 10 Algerians and Iraqis said they felt the same way, as did 68% of Egyptians.
Almost half Egyptians felt their right to express themselves was now diminished compared to in the Hosni Mubarak era, though a fifth said they were now freer to speak and more than one in three were ambivalent, saying they neither agreed nor disagreed.
This uncertainty was consistent across the responses from Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world. Asked if they had a better life today than a decade ago, a plurality said they were unsure. They felt similarly on the question of whether children based a better future today than in 2010.
This carried through to their views on the January 2011 revolution that unseated Mubarak and first elevated the Muslim Brotherhood, and then the military-dominated rule of the president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
Egyptians were virtually split on whether they had supported the uprising, and among those older than age 25, also evenly divided on whether they regretted the downfall of Mubarak and the tumultuous years that followed.
It was unclear if the equivocation of Egyptians stemmed from concerns over security. YouGov said that all respondents were assured that their answers would be subject to a confidentiality clause and all responses would be anonymised.