TEDxSummit

Dalia Mogahed: The attitudes that sparked Arab Spring

Filmed:

Pollster Dalia Mogahed shares surprising data on Egyptian people's attitudes and hopes before the Arab Spring -- with a special focus on the role of women in sparking change.

- Muslim studies scholar
Researcher and pollster Dalia Mogahed is an author, advisor and consultant who studies Muslim communities. Full bio

My talk today is about something
00:17
maybe a couple of you have already heard about.
00:19
It's called the Arab Spring.
00:21
Anyone heard of it?
00:23
(Applause)
00:25
So in 2011, power shifted,
00:28
from the few to the many,
00:33
from oval offices to central squares,
00:36
from carefully guarded airwaves
00:39
to open-source networks.
00:42
But before Tahrir was a global symbol of liberation,
00:45
there were representative surveys
00:50
already giving people a voice
00:52
in quieter but still powerful ways.
00:55
I study Muslim societies around the world at Gallup.
00:58
Since 2001,
01:03
we've interviewed hundreds of thousands of people --
01:06
young and old, men and women,
01:09
educated and illiterate.
01:11
My talk today draws on this research
01:13
to reveal why Arabs rose up
01:16
and what they want now.
01:20
Now this region's very diverse,
01:23
and every country is unique.
01:27
But those who revolted
01:29
shared a common set of grievances
01:30
and have similar demands today.
01:33
I'm going to focus a lot of my talk on Egypt.
01:36
It has nothing to do with the fact that I was born there, of course.
01:39
But it's the largest Arab country
01:43
and it's also one with a great deal of influence.
01:46
But I'm going to end by widening the lens to the entire region
01:50
to look at the mundane topics
01:54
of Arab views of religion and politics
01:56
and how this impacts women,
01:59
revealing some surprises along the way.
02:02
So after analyzing mounds of data,
02:06
what we discovered was this:
02:10
Unemployment and poverty alone
02:13
did not lead to the Arab revolts of 2011.
02:16
If an act of desperation by a Tunisian fruit vendor
02:21
sparked these revolutions,
02:24
it was the difference between what Arabs experienced
02:25
and what they expected
02:29
that provided the fuel.
02:32
To tell you what I mean,
02:34
consider this trend in Egypt.
02:35
On paper the country was doing great.
02:37
In fact, it attracted accolades
02:40
from multinational organizations
02:43
because of its economic growth.
02:45
But under the surface was a very different reality.
02:48
In 2010, right before the revolution,
02:50
even though GDP per capita
02:54
had been growing at five percent for several years,
02:56
Egyptians had never felt worse about their lives.
02:59
Now this is very unusual,
03:04
because globally we find that, not surprisingly,
03:06
people feel better as their country gets richer.
03:09
And that's because they have better job opportunities
03:13
and their state offers better social services.
03:16
But it was exactly the opposite in Egypt.
03:19
As the country got more well-off,
03:21
unemployment actually rose
03:24
and people's satisfaction
03:27
with things like housing and education plummeted.
03:29
But it wasn't just anger at economic injustice.
03:35
It was also people's deep longing for freedom.
03:39
Contrary to the clash of civilizations theory,
03:47
Arabs didn't despise Western liberty,
03:51
they desired it.
03:55
As early as 2001,
03:57
we asked Arabs, and Muslims in general around the world,
03:59
what they admired most about the West.
04:03
Among the most frequent responses
04:06
was liberty and justice.
04:08
In their own words to an open-ended question
04:11
we heard, "Their political system is transparent
04:14
and it's following democracy in its true sense."
04:17
Another said it was "liberty and freedom
04:20
and being open-minded with each other."
04:22
Majorities as high as 90 percent and greater
04:25
in Egypt, Indonesia and Iran
04:29
told us in 2005
04:32
that if they were to write a new constitution
04:35
for a theoretical new country
04:39
that they would guarantee freedom of speech
04:42
as a fundamental right,
04:44
especially in Egypt.
04:47
Eighty-eight percent said moving toward greater democracy
04:49
would help Muslims progress --
04:53
the highest percentage of any country we surveyed.
04:55
But pressed up against these democratic aspirations
05:00
was a very different day-to-day experience,
05:03
especially in Egypt.
05:06
While aspiring to democracy the most,
05:09
they were the least likely population in the world
05:12
to say that they had actually voiced their opinion
05:17
to a public official in the last month --
05:21
at only four percent.
05:23
So while economic development made a few people rich,
05:27
it left many more worse off.
05:31
As people felt less and less free,
05:34
they also felt less and less provided for.
05:38
So rather than viewing their former regimes
05:42
as generous if overprotective fathers,
05:46
they viewed them as essentially prison wardens.
05:49
So now that Egyptians have ended Mubarak's 30-year rule,
05:53
they potentially could be
05:58
an example for the region.
06:00
If Egypt is to succeed
06:02
at building a society based on the rule of law,
06:04
it could be a model.
06:08
If, however,
06:10
the core issues that propelled the revolution aren't addressed,
06:12
the consequences could be catastrophic --
06:16
not just for Egypt,
06:20
but for the entire region.
06:21
The signs don't look good, some have said.
06:24
Islamists, not the young liberals that sparked the revolution,
06:28
won the majority in Parliament.
06:33
The military council
06:35
has cracked down on civil society and protests
06:37
and the country's economy continues to suffer.
06:41
Evaluating Egypt on this basis alone, however,
06:45
ignores the real revolution.
06:50
Because Egyptians are more optimistic
06:54
than they have been in years,
06:56
far less divided on religious-secular lines
06:59
than we would think
07:03
and poised for the demands of democracy.
07:04
Whether they support Islamists or liberals,
07:08
Egyptians' priorities for this government are identical,
07:11
and they are jobs, stability and education,
07:14
not moral policing.
07:17
But most of all,
07:19
for the first time in decades,
07:20
they expect to be active participants, not spectators,
07:22
in the affairs of their country.
07:25
I was meeting with a group of newly-elected parliamentarians
07:28
from Egypt and Tunisia
07:32
a couple of weeks ago.
07:33
And what really struck me about them
07:35
was that they weren't only optimistic,
07:38
but they kind of struck me as nervous,
07:43
for lack of a better word.
07:46
One said to me,
07:47
"Our people used to gather in cafes to watch football" --
07:48
or soccer, as we say in America --
07:51
"and now they gather to watch Parliament."
07:54
(Laughter)
07:59
"They're really watching us,
08:02
and we can't help but worry
08:04
that we're not going to live up to their expectations."
08:08
And what really struck me
08:11
is that less than 24 months ago,
08:12
it was the people that were nervous
08:14
about being watched by their government.
08:17
And the reason that they're expecting a lot
08:20
is because they have a new-found hope for the future.
08:23
So right before the revolution
08:26
we said that Egyptians had never felt worse about their lives,
08:28
but not only that, they thought their future would be no better.
08:31
What really changed after the ouster of Mubarak
08:36
wasn't that life got easier.
08:39
It actually got harder.
08:41
But people's expectations for their future
08:43
went up significantly.
08:46
And this hope, this optimism,
08:48
endured a year of turbulent transition.
08:50
One reason that there's this optimism
08:55
is because, contrary to what many people have said,
08:58
most Egyptians think things really have changed in many ways.
09:02
So while Egyptians were known
09:06
for their single-digit turnout
09:09
in elections before the revolution,
09:12
the last election had around 70 percent voter turnout --
09:15
men and women.
09:18
Where scarcely a quarter believed in the honesty of elections in 2010 --
09:20
I'm surprised it was a quarter --
09:25
90 percent thought that this last election was honest.
09:27
Now why this matters
09:31
is because we discovered a link
09:33
between people's faith in their democratic process
09:36
and their faith that oppressed people
09:40
can change their situation
09:44
through peaceful means alone.
09:46
(Applause)
09:51
Now I know what some of you are thinking.
10:01
The Egyptian people,
10:03
and many other Arabs who've revolted and are in transition,
10:05
have very high expectations of the government.
10:08
They're just victims of a long-time autocracy,
10:12
expecting a paternal state
10:17
to solve all their problems.
10:19
But this conclusion would ignore
10:21
a tectonic shift taking place in Egypt
10:25
far from the cameras in Tahrir Square.
10:28
And that is Egyptians' elevated expectations
10:32
are placed first on themselves.
10:36
In the country once known for its passive resignation,
10:39
where, as bad as things got,
10:43
only four percent expressed their opinion to a public official,
10:45
today 90 percent tell us
10:49
that if there's a problem in their community,
10:52
it's up to them to fix it.
10:54
(Applause)
10:57
And three-fourths
11:04
believe they not only have the responsibility,
11:06
but the power to make change.
11:09
And this empowerment
11:12
also applies to women,
11:14
whose role in the revolts
11:17
cannot be underestimated.
11:19
They were doctors and dissidents,
11:21
artists and organizers.
11:23
A full third of those who braved tanks and tear gas
11:25
to ask or to demand liberty and justice in Egypt
11:30
were women.
11:35
(Applause)
11:37
Now people have raised some real concerns
11:42
about what the rise of Islamist parties means for women.
11:45
What we've found about the role of religion in law
11:49
and the role of religion in society
11:53
is that there's no female consensus.
11:56
We found that women in one country
11:58
look more like the men in that country
12:03
than their female counterparts across the border.
12:05
Now what this suggests
12:09
is that how women view religion's role in society
12:11
is shaped more by their own country's culture and context
12:15
than one monolithic view
12:20
that religion is simply bad for women.
12:23
Where women agree, however,
12:26
is on their own role,
12:29
and that it must be central and active.
12:31
And here is where we see the greatest gender difference within a country --
12:33
on the issue of women's rights.
12:39
Now how men feel about women's rights
12:41
matters to the future of this region.
12:44
Because we discovered a link
12:47
between men's support for women's employment
12:49
and how many women are actually employed
12:53
in professional fields in that country.
12:57
So the question becomes,
13:00
What drives men's support for women's rights?
13:01
What about men's views of religion and law?
13:05
[Does] a man's opinion
13:12
of the role of religion in politics
13:15
shape their view of women's rights?
13:18
The answer is no.
13:22
We found absolutely no correlation,
13:23
no impact whatsoever,
13:26
between these two variables.
13:27
What drives men's support for women's employment
13:30
is men's employment,
13:34
their level of education
13:37
as well as a high score
13:39
on their country's U.N. Human Development Index.
13:42
What this means
13:46
is that human development,
13:47
not secularization,
13:50
is what's key to women's empowerment
13:53
in the transforming Middle East.
13:55
And the transformation continues.
13:59
From Wall Street to Mohammed Mahmoud Street,
14:02
it has never been more important
14:06
to understand the aspirations
14:08
of ordinary people.
14:10
Thank you.
14:12
(Applause)
14:14
Translated by Timothy Covell
Reviewed by Morton Bast

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Dalia Mogahed - Muslim studies scholar
Researcher and pollster Dalia Mogahed is an author, advisor and consultant who studies Muslim communities.

Why you should listen

As director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Dalia Mogahed keeps her finger on the pulse of the Muslim world. She served on Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009, advising the president on how faith-based organizations can help government solve persistent social problems.

Mogahed is a former director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, where her surveys of Muslim opinion skewered myths and stereotypes while illuminating the varied attitudes of Muslims toward politics, religion, and gender issues. Her 2008 book with John Esposito, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, outlines these surprising findings.

More profile about the speaker
Dalia Mogahed | Speaker | TED.com