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There is a prevailing belief among many that foreign and domestic politics have undergone significant transformations over the last few decades, rendering them increasingly difficult to predict. In our recent study, we focus on how individuals navigate political uncertainty in their evaluation of government in non-democratic countries. The title “The Age of Uncertainty”, chosen by the editors of Foreign Affairs for their centennial issue last year, exemplifies the prominence of uncertainty in contemporary political discourse. This choice captures the widespread perception that we currently exist in an era characterized by unparalleled political instability and volatility. Humans, nevertheless, are not passive or indifferent to uncertainty. On the contrary, we possess an inherent desire to resolve uncertainty and make sense of our complex and unpredictable world. In our study, we show how people try to resolve political uncertainty by evaluating their government’s performance.
Uncertainty in the Arab world
During national turmoil and instability, how can citizens find greater certainty in assessing whether to credit or blame their government? To explore this question, I turn to the Arab World, a region characterized by complex and enduring political challenges that have heightened the sense of uncertainty. Historically, the Arab-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region were known for regime stability and authoritarian persistence. However, the landscape shifted dramatically following the Arab Uprisings that began in late 2010, with Tunisia at the forefront. These uprisings unleashed a series of protests and revolutions that reverberated throughout the region, resulting in political instability, regime changes, and, in some cases, state collapse. Concurrently, the security situation underwent significant transformations as people in the Arab World grappled with internal threats like domestic violence in Egypt and external interventions in countries such as Libya and Yemen. The Arab Uprisings and the subsequent political turbulence have raised widespread concerns among Arab populations about both domestic and foreign perils.
Besides these security threats, people in the Arab World also faced uncertainty about their political and economic situation. The Arab Uprisings removed long-time leaders and caused civil wars and protests that weakened the state. For several years after the uprisings, regime trajectories in a number of countries were unclear, as rival social forces were fighting for political power. Political crises also threatened financial stability across the region and caused volatile economic conditions. Moreover, political transitions created uncertainty about social policy agendas towards minority groups and women. Information manipulation and other authoritarian practices have further created doubts about governments’ true goals and policies. Social media and new technologies showed their potential for political activism and information access during the Arab Uprisings, but they also triggered new forms of control, deception and misinformation by the existing elites.
Evaluating the government in uncertain times
As uncertainty about the political environment in the Arab World increased, it constrained individuals’ ability to evaluate their political leadership. Most of the research on how people judge leaders and governments has been done in democratic countries, but lately, there has been a wave of studies on public opinion in non-democratic settings. These studies show that even people living under authoritarian regimes still care about how well the leaders and governments perform. Yet, as the political system becomes more unstable and less predictable, people may face more difficulties in accessing reliable information and forming consistent opinions about leaders and governments. Other researchers have found this in different contexts where uncertainty makes it harder for people to assess the government’s actions and policies. Uncertainty also makes it harder for people to predict how the government will behave on certain issues and to hold it responsible for its performance.
What are citizens’ main concerns when they assess their government’s performance and hold it accountable for its actions? Scholars have long focused on two key factors as the main determinants of government popularity: prosperity and security. Prosperity refers to the economic health and welfare of the people, while security covers the government’s ability to safeguard the nation from foreign and domestic dangers. These factors are expected to shape the public’s support or dissatisfaction with the incumbent government and its policies.
The role of information and cues in opinion formation
An examination of the evaluations of governments in the Arab World in the decade following the Arab Uprisings reveals that citizens often used a combination of economic and security factors to decide whether the government deserved reward or punishment. Notably, the alignment of these two issues, either positively or negatively, had a greater impact on the government’s popularity. Citizens who thought external security threats were a major national challenge were more likely to support the incumbent if they also thought the economy was doing well. Those worried about internal security threats were more likely to be dissatisfied with the government if they thought the economy was doing badly. Importantly, citizens felt more certain about their actions when there was an additional indication that expressing satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the government was the appropriate course of action.
The study on citizens’ evaluation of government in uncertain political conditions offers a compelling glimpse into the intricacies of navigating turbulent times. The Arab World is a case study where the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings ushered in a wave of political instability, economic volatility, and security threats. Within this context, individuals faced significant challenges in assessing and holding their government’s performance accountable. However, amidst the fog of uncertainty, a glimmer of clarity emerges – the power of consistent information from diverse sources. By leveraging a multifaceted approach to information gathering, citizens in the Arab World were able to form more confident and nuanced opinions about their government’s actions and policies.
Kraitzman, A. P., & Genauer, J. (2023). The impact of security issues on government evaluation: evidence from the Arab World. Democratization, 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2023.2177639