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THE self-immolation a year ago of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi triggered a wave of popular protests that spread across the Arab world, forcing out dictators in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, too, seems near the end of his rule.
Together, these movements for change have come to be known as the Arab Spring. But what values are driving these movements, and what kind of change do their adherents want? A series of surveys in the Arab world last summer highlight some significant shifts in public opinion.
In surveys, 84 per cent of Egyptians and 66 per cent of Lebanese regarded democracy and economic prosperity as the Arab Spring's goal. In both countries, only about nine per cent believed that these movements aimed to establish an Islamic government.
For Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where trend data are available, the Arab Spring reflected a significant shift in people's values concerning national identity. In 2001, only eight per cent of Egyptians defined themselves as Egyptians above all, while 81 per cent defined themselves as Muslims. In 2007, the results were roughly the same.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, however, these numbers changed dramatically: those defining themselves as Egyptians rose to 50 per cent, two per cent more than those who defined themselves as Muslims. Among Iraqis, primary self-identification in national terms jumped from 23 per cent of respondents in 2004 to 57 per cent last year.
Among Saudis, the figure jumped from 17 per cent in 2003 to 46 per cent last year, while the share of those claiming a primary Muslim identity dropped from 75 per cent to 44 per cent.
There has also been a shift towards secular politics and weakening support for syariah. Among Iraqis, the percentage of those who agreed that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated increased from 50 per cent in 2004 to almost 70 per cent last year.
Similar data are not available for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but both countries show a decline in support for syariah. In Egypt, those considering it "very important" for government to implement syariah declined from 48 per cent in 2001 to 28 per cent last year. For Saudis, the figure fell from 69 per cent in 2003 to 31 per cent last year.
Finally, an analysis of a nationally representative sample of 3,500 Egyptian adults, who rated their participation in the anti-Hosni Mubarak movement, showed that participants were more likely to be younger single males with higher socioeconomic status, users of the Internet, newspaper readers, urban residents, and believers in modern values and free will.
They did not mind having Americans, British or French as neighbours. Religiosity did not predict participation, while religious intolerance reduced participation.
These figures seem at odds with the results of Egypt's recent parliamentary election, in which the Muslim Brothers and the Salafi fundamentalists together gained about 65 per cent of the vote.
It remains true that religion is an important factor for Egyptian voters, as 66 per cent of those surveyed "strongly agree" or "agree" that it would be better if people with strong religious belief held public office; and 57 per cent consider implementation of syariah "very important" or "important".
Nonetheless, nationalism trumps religion. Fully 78 per cent agreed with the statement that it would be better if more people with a strong commitment to national interests rather than with strong religious views held public office.
How, then, to explain the inconsistency between the survey data and Egypt's election results?
First, the fundamentalists benefited from years of political organising and activism, and thus were better able to mobilise their supporters, whereas the liberals, who led the uprising against the former regime, lacked nationwide organisation and had little time to translate their newly acquired political capital into votes.
Second, the liberals' priorities were misplaced. Instead of pushing their agenda forward among Egyptians, they focused on the wrong enemy, spending invaluable time organising rallies against the army.
Finally, the election outcome is not as bad as it appears. Liberalism has been under continuous attack for decades from extremists and religious institutions, and liberal organisations were stifled by oppressive rules.
If the Mubarak regime had fallen under the banner of political Islam, fundamentalists would have been in a much better position to advance more exclusivist claims over the revolution and the country.
But it was the liberals who delivered Egypt from authoritarianism. This, in turn, brought legitimacy to liberalism and generated the powerful feeling of nationalist awareness among Egyptians. As a result, support for syariah declined and national identity soared. Insofar as political discourse is focused on national rebuilding and freedom, Islamic fundamentalists, in Egypt and elsewhere, will face an uphill battle. Project Syndicate