The Many Colors of the ‘Arab Spring’

Monday, August 27th, 2012


Lebanese citizens have noticed the Arab Spring. A January 2012 national random sample opinion survey conducted by the Lebanese American University of 324 Lebanese of varying sects in administrative districts throughout Lebanon gives us a revealing insight into the Lebanese’ attitude towards the ongoing regional events around them. Although Lebanon has not seen activism the likes of some of its regional neighbors, Syria’s continuing uprising, and its potential impact on their lives, is not lost on the Lebanese. Lebanese respondents are exceedingly conscious that the fate of Syria in particular has a direct political and economic impact on Lebanon. Further, respondents displayed a sectarian perception of the positive or negative role of foreign nations’ involvement in the events of the Arab Spring, reflecting the political-sectarian divisions in Lebanese society.

Lebanese respondents are spending a significant amount of time following the events of the Arab Spring. Over half of the people surveyed spend an average of two or more hours daily following the news. Although results from the survey vary by the sectarian affiliation of the responder, the majority of responders pointed to a perceived lack of “freedom” by Arab youth, poor economic opportunities in uprising countries, and the interference of foreign nations as the main causes of the Arab Spring. Notably, Shi’a Muslim and Sunni Muslim respondents differed on which of the major causes of the Arab Spring they found most important. Sunni Muslims, who share the same sect as the majority of the rebelling population in the Arab Spring, except in Bahrain, emphasize lack of political freedom. Shi’a Muslims, in contrast, cite external conspiracy as the primary cause of the Arab Spring. This difference in opinion seems to indicate the impact of the Syrian Uprising on the Lebanese respondents’ perceptions of the Arab Spring, as the Iranian supported, pro-Hezbollah and pro-Amal, Assad government confronts the majority Sunni Muslim anti-Assad movements.

Seventy percent of respondents stated that a lack of freedom and citizenship rights, along with excessive repression, was the cause of unrest in the region. Closely following this response was poverty and a lack of economic opportunity, which respondents saw as sparking and inflaming the uprisings. Respondents displayed a degree of cynicism in assigning responsibility for the events of the Arab Spring. While acknowledging the tremendous role of youth as being the most active in the uprisings, they also indicated that armed revolutionaries (thuwar) and foreign intervention were also causing the Arab Spring. In fact, respondents displayed considerable cynicism, stating that conspiracy from external (i.e. foreign) instigators is a major “push” factor driving the Arab Spring.

Beyond the desire for greater political freedom, respondents also cited economic disparity as the strongest factor causing the Arab Spring. Economic disparity, according to the respondents, encompasses both a lack of opportunity to find employment and government corruption that impedes the ordinary Arab’s ability to sustain their livelihood. In this regard, the respondents are echoing several respected international organization’s diagnosis of the economic malaise that is afflicting the region. According to the International Labor Organization’s 2011 report on Global Employment, not only does the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region have the world’s highest rate of unemployment by region at 10 percent, 23 percent of its youth population is unemployed. Transparency International cites corruption caused by authoritarian governments controlling large bureaucracies that crowd out public participation in the economy as a condition that suffocates economic opportunity in the MENA region.

Responses to the survey also demonstrate the highly sectarian and politically divided nature of Lebanese society. The survey reveals that the respondents’ sect particularly influenced perceptions of the beneficial or harmful role of several powerful MENA geopolitical actors in the Arab Spring. Respondents display greater trust in the intentions of the foreign nation or international organization that they perceived most closely mirrored the interests of their sect in either policy or religious beliefs.

Shi’a Muslims viewed Iran’s role in the Arab Uprising more positively by than Sunni Muslims and Maronite Catholics, while Sunni Muslims viewed Turkey’s role in the Arab Uprising more positively by than Maronite Catholics. Similarly, Shi’a Muslims have a favorable view of Russia and China, as both countries have provided vetoes on two key United Nations Security Council resolutions concerning international intervention in Syria. The role of international and regional organizations also divides respondents’ opinions.

The United Nations and the Arab League both received mixed responses from respondents. Shi’a and Sunni Muslim respondents disliked the role of the United Nations in the region, while Maronite Catholics viewed the UN positively. Similarly, the Council of Islamic States receives support from Sunni Muslims, but not from Shi’a Muslims or Maronite Catholics. The Arab League, which under the influence of Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been pushing for international intervention in Syria, did not receive strong reception from the respondents.

The United States and Israel did not fare well in this survey. In spite of this diversity of opinion, respondents of all sectarian affiliations display a strong dislike for the role of the United States in both the Arab Spring and the United States and Israel in MENA region affairs. Continued suspicion of the policies of the United States and Israel in the MENA region united the respondents.  

The Lebanese respondents of the survey are painfully aware that the regional unrest caused by the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria, could very well upset the precarious sectarian balance in Lebanon. Over 8,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon from Syria, bringing the grim reality of the events in Lebanon’s neighbor home to many Lebanese. The national opinion survey conducted to learn more about Lebanese’ attitudes towards the Arab Spring reveals that the Syrian Uprising is being viewed by the Lebanese as the product of a lack of political freedom, harsh economic stagnation, and the machinations of foreign powers, especially in the context of the wider regional rivalry between Sunni and Shi’a Muslim powers.

Author’s Bio

Imad Salamey is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Lebanese American University (LAU). Salamey received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Wayne State University, USA. His research interests focus on topics of democratic transition, power sharing, Islamist movements, and governance. His current research analyzes the causes and consequences of Middle East and North Africa’s revolutions and subsequent prospect for democratic transition in the Arab countries.

Contributor’s Note

The author wishes to thank Raycene Andari Nevils and Nicholas A. Heras for their contributions to the research and composition of this article.