Once the political landscape of the new Arab democracies finishes consolidatation, parties will move toward the preferences of a young and open-minded Arab median voter. But watch out! He or she will be highly influenceable.
After the political turmoil in the Middle East, many Arabs are enjoying for the first time the right to vote in free and democratic elections. New political parties are emerging along many old and new ideological lines. The political landscape will no doubt consolidate in the next years as a result of upcoming elections. Many will search for that median voter, the voter in the middle of society who can decide majoritarian elections and toward whose preferences parties on the right and left will be forced to move. Given the conservative nature of Middle Eastern societies, the man or women in middle is a regular Islamist. Thus, how would this median islamist be like and is there any reason to be afraid?
First, the median voter will be a practicing Muslim who will regard himself as religious. This is good and bad news depending who is reading it, but it is essentially not that meaningful on its own.
While the average Arab believes that religion and politics can intervene, he would be unwilling to accept the interference of religious authorities in politics, according to a recent poll organized by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). Certainly, this does not correspond to the views of Salafi movements like the Al-Nour party in Egypt.
Yet, the Arab in the middle would see the Western notion of democracy with some skepticism, especially when it comes to boundless freedoms of religion and expression.
Rather than assimilating to a democracy understanding based on inalienable basic rights that can be practiced to the same extent as in the Western world, the median Arab contemplates democracy and freedom mainly in its political dimension. This includes political system aspects such as the rule of law and the participation in a political process with checks and balances.
Second, the median Arab will be relatively young with many children. 54 per cent of the population in the Arab region is under the age of 25, according to the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) of 2010. This is compared to 48 per cent in developing and 29 per cent in developed countries. Of course, many of these under the age of 25 will not be able to vote (around 50 per cent of population of Yemen are under the age 15). Yet, given the small portion of population above the age of 50, the preferences of the young majority will dictate the political agenda.
For any political party to win the support of such young voter, they would need to be regarded not only as serious but also as dynamic and exciting. It will be very interesting to witness how current political parties will evolve to meet the preferences of the young majority. It does not do any party well if they insist on having a public face of old, out-of-touch bureaucrats using a decorative language from the past.
What about the economic situation of our typical voter? Well, the economic welfare of Arab population depends on whether they live in an oil-rich Golf country or in the rest of the Arab world.
For the rest of Arab countries which include all Arab Spring countries, income poverty is very high. Around 28 per cent of population in Syria, 40 per cent in Egypt, and more than 50 per cent in Yemen are living below the upper national poverty line, according the AHDR of 2009. Similarly, these countries exhibit high rates in the Human Poverty Index (HPI) of more than 30 per cent, an indicator which also includes life expectancy, education and standard of living.
It is likely that the voters who are in the middle of the political spectrum will be primarily concerned about jobs. Employment rates in Arab countries vary significantly, but they remain very high on average at 14.4 per cent of the labour force in comparison to 6.3 per cent as the world average. Youth unemployment rates present a real problem, nearly double the global average.
Even among the educated youth of Tunisia, youth-unemployment rate is at a staggering 30 per cent. Although some European countries like Spain or Greece (more than 40 per cent) now face the same challenge, the young demographic structure of Arab countries gives youth unemployment an ominous dimension.
The young, religious and economically worried median voter might also very well be tech-savvy to some degree. The free exchange of information through social media platforms or satellite TV channels was very instrumental in promoting democratic change, and this phenomenon is only expected to grow.
Besides, many of Arab people are politically interested citizens given the nature of their volatile region and, after decades of political repression, thirsty for free debates and political activism. This is even so with young people who have the information age knowledge at their disposal.
In view of the dominance of economic considerations in Arab voter preferences, what about foreign policy? It will still play a role, and figure prominently in the singular issue of Palestine. According to the poll of the ACRPS mentioned in the beginning, 84 per cent of people reject the notion of the recognition of Israel and the majority opposes any peace agreement.
Anti-Israel sentiments are very old in the Arab region and cannot be hiked any further. But as Arabs in the past traded peace with Israel for political stability, there is no reason to believe that they will not be willing in the future to do the same for the sake of stability and economic prosperity
Eventually, we can depict a picture of a median Islamist that is very different from the familiar fears attached to the word ‘Islamist’. A young, politically interested, moderate Muslim, who is primarily concerned with job security, is the kind of voter Arab political parties will try to win over and move toward.
The median Islamist exhibits a great degree of open-mindedness due to his relative young age, dislike of interference or dictations from religious figures, and his relative technology and internet affinity. This is good news for democracy but it is not a firm guarantee. In many Arab countries, the median voter will be poorly educated and thus highly susceptible to propaganda or manipulation. That is exactly why education should be the number one priority, not only in order to increase employability of young Arab people but also cement democracy.
Written by Mohammad Al-Saidi