Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, February 2011.
Source: https://publicintelligence.net/egyptian-revolution-photos-february-2011/ Demotix / Mohamed Elmaymoney. Used with Permission.
Late January and February 2011 marked a giant step in the history of Egypt toward a previously unknown, but for millions, desperately desired, democratic future: bloody and violent revolutionary protests, remembered for brutal killings of ordinary Egyptians during 17 days that led to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. In an attempt to analyze the impact of social status characteristics on the perceptions of the most essential features of democracy among Egyptians, I here share a few preliminary results of my master’s research project, Is Democracy Essential in the View of Egyptian Citizens? The Influence of Respondents’ Status Characteristics on their Attitudes toward Core Democratic Values. Using quantitativedata from an Afrobarometer survey, I explore the impact of age, gender, income, education, type of residence, interest in public affairs and several other individual characteristics on Egyptian perceptions of the most essential characteristics of democratic government. The Afrobarometer survey is an international research project collecting public opinion data from African countries concerning the quality of governance and democracy (Afrobarometer International Research Project). A sample of 1,200 Egyptian men and women participated in round 5 of the survey in 2013.
Every research project focusing on an important, widely discussed and quite “overloaded” concept, such as democracy, has to conceptualize its main subject seriously. My major concern in this respect is not to oversimplify the idea to measure it empirically, but at the same time not go to an extreme by scrutinizing a wide array of dimensions of democratic values. Since I have based my study on the Afrobarometer dataset and questionnaire, it is logical to use that survey’s understanding of democracy as a starting point for my analysis pursuing understanding of the impact of various determinants of social status on individual perceptions of democratic governance. However, as my study progresses, I plan to construct “democratic” indices capturing respondents’ attitudes toward several aspects of democracy so as to capture their orientations more fully. In any case, the questionnaire emphasizes the following features as vital indicators of democracy:
“Many thing may be desirable, but not all of them are essential characteristics of democracy. If you have to choose only one of the things that I am going to read, which one would you choose as the most essential characteristic of democracy?”
- Government narrows the gap between the rich and the poor
- People choose government leaders in free and fair elections
- Government does not waste any public money
- People are free to express their political views openly (Egypt, Round 5 questionnaire, p.13)
It is not an exhaustive list of factors that might be linked to democracy, but I used this particular question as a starting point for my analysis to examine how age, education, gender and income shape (or do not shape) respondents’ views on the characteristics that define a democratic regime. Age is among basic, but at the same time, key factors influencing positions not only in relation to democracy, but other important issues as well: “According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, ‘a mid-decade public opinion poll conducted in several Muslim countries (although Egypt was not included) revealed that attitudes towards democracy are changing across age groups as well. For instance, Indonesia is the only predominantly Muslim country in which there is a significant age difference in these opinions, with more respondents under age 40 than older people expressing the view that democracy can work there (44% vs. 34% of those age 40 and older)’” (Pew Research Center, 2005;Rukhin, 2014, p.7).
The role of gender in shaping opinions cannot be underestimated either. For instance, “in the case of Egypt, women were granted suffrage in 1956, but still their positionality in the Egyptian society does not let them exercise as much freedom as male members of their society do. Therefore, the influence of gender on perceptions of democracy is thought to be a significant one, however, we cannot be absolutely sure what kind of impact gender will have” (Rukhin, 2014, p.6).
Education, as demonstrated in a series of similar studies of attitudes toward democracy by Jamal, Tessler, and Ciftci, is a critical factor in determining citizens’ perceptions. As I have argued, the “Traditional view on the connection between democracy and the education of citizens seemed to be direct—the more educated citizens are, the more democratic the state is because education is seen as a guarantor of effective functioning of social institutions supporting the democratic environment” (Rukhin 2014, p.19). In addition, a prominent democracy theorist, Adam Przeworski, has argued that one’s class position greatly determines one’s view on democracy: “…preferences about economic systems have class bases”(Przeworski, 1991). Consequently, it makes sense to include this independent variable in the model and to simplify the task I have employed income as a proxy for class.
According to the descriptive statistics, “data indicates that almost 50% of respondents thought that the most essential characteristic of democracy was that government narrows the gap between the rich and the poor. A little more than 24% of respondents agreed that the most important feature of democratic governance is free and fair elections in which citizens are able to exercise their right to participate in the political life of their country. At the same time people are less likely to say that government should not waste any public money because only about 12% of respondents agreed with that answer. Valuing democracy as an opportunity to express one’s political views openly also did not seem to be very important in the view of responding Egyptians in 2013: only about 9% identified this principle as the main characteristic of democracy” (Rukhin, 2014, p.11).
The first model in the multinomial regression analysis included age, gender, and education as independent variables, and the data showed a significant result only for the variable “government narrows the gap between the rich and the poor.” Education and preference for this characteristic of democracy were negatively related. Thus, the higher the educational level of a respondent, the less likely they were to think of this aspect of democracy as a vital feature compared to “expressing political views openly” which was employed as a reference group. Age and gender did not prove significant in this respect. The explanatory power of this model was extremely low and equaled approximately 3.1%.
The potential importance of income in shaping respondents’ views must also be evaluated. However, the Afrobarometer dataset does not include this variable directly. Instead, the authors employ the question asking “if a respondent or member(s) of his family have ever gone without enough food”. In a second model I added this variable as a control along with interest in public affairs. The rest was the same as in the first model. Higher levels of education are still significantly and negatively associated with the choice of “government narrows the gap between the rich and the poor” compared to “expressing political views openly.” We also see another significant result: respondents who are not interested in public affairs are less likely to claim that the most important feature is that “people choose government leaders in free and fair elections” compared to “expressing political views openly.” This model still is quite weak at explaining the variation in the opinion of respondents as it explains only 5%.
The third model observed the influence of such independent factors as education, employment status and satisfaction with how the Egyptian democracy works. Education was still negatively and significantly correlated with “choosing government leaders in free and fair elections” vs. “expressing political views openly.” “This model also predicted that Egyptians who find themselves less satisfied with how the Egyptian democracy works were less likely to choose the option ‘people choose government leaders in free and fair elections’” (Rukhin, 2014, final paper). Model 3 explains only 7.4% variation of the opinions of those responding to the Afrobarometer Egyptian survey.
The data indicate that not all variables of interest (age, education, gender, and income) have an impact on the perceptions of Egyptians on the most essential features of democracy. The outcome variable was formulated on the basis of one question from the survey. Thus, it might not reflect different dimensions of views on democracy. This fact can explain why there was almost no significant relationship found and reassures me that in order to study the issue properly an index embodying several characteristics of the concept of democracy is crucial.
Despite the imperfections these test models represent, it still seems reasonable to argue that education is negatively correlated with the choice of socio-economic equality as an essential characteristic of any democratic regime among Egyptians surveyed. Educated people on average earn more than less well-educated individuals. Differences in educational level lead to accumulating and, probably, escalating economic inequality between these two groups. It also seems quite likely that high-income people are against narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor because they do not have a desire to share their wealth with their poorer counterparts. In turn, the significant negative relationship found between the variable “interest in public affairs” and “people choose government leaders in free and fair elections” may be interpreted as suggesting that people who demonstrate little interest in public life are less likely to participate actively in voting. The third model yielded another interesting result: citizens who are not satisfied with Egyptian democracy do not tend to value “free and fair elections” as the most important component of a democratic regime. This result should probably be interpreted as arising from individual disbelief and frustration caused by the nation’s political system.
Afrobarometer International Research Project. Retrieved February 2, 2014, from URL:http://www.afrobarometer.org/index.php
Afrobarometer Round 5 Questionnaire. Retrieved February 5, 2014, from URL:http://www.afrobarometer.org/survey-and-methods/questionairres
Rukhin, S. (2014). Unpublished final Paper in Intermediate Data Analysis (5224) What is Essential in Democracy in the View of the Egyptian Citizens? The influence of respondents’ status characteristics on their preference of the most important features of democracy
Rukhin, S. (2014). Thesis Proposal Is Democracy Essential in the View of the Egyptian Citizens? The Influence of Respondents’ Status Characteristics on their Attitudes toward Core Democratic Values
The Image is in the public domain; Public Intelligence. Retrieved October 29, 2014, from URL: https://publicintelligence.net/egyptian-revolution-photos-february-2011/
Sofia Rukhin received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology in 2013 from the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow and is pursuing her Master’s degree in sociology at Virginia Tech. Her primary research interests include political economy, political sociology, globalization, and social movement theory. She is also interested in the development of U.S. – Russia relations and was selected to participate in the Stanford University – Russia Forum in 2012-2013 to work on a collaborative research project entitled, “Cooperation between U.S. and Russian Public Welfare Agencies.” Sofia and her colleagues presented their work at Stanford University in April 2013. Sofia is also interested in social policy issues and together with colleagues from the research group Professions in a Welfare State from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow she completed a research project entitled, “Professional Status of Social Work in Russia: a Cultural Resource Assessment.” In addition to her coursework and research in sociology, Sofia is also learning Mandarin Chinese.