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Dispatch

AD188: Separate and compatible? Islam and democracy in five North African countries

Thomas Isbell 14 Feb 2018 Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia
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Key findings
  • About two-thirds of respondents in four of the five countries see no contradiction between democracy and Islam: Tunisia (69%), Morocco (68%), Egypt (64%), and Sudan (63%). Not quite half (47%) of Algerians agree.
  • Similarly, the idea that non-Muslims should have fewer political rights than Muslims is rejected by majorities in Tunisia (73%), Morocco (72%), Egypt (58%), and Sudan (57%), and by a plurality (46%) in Algeria.
  • Majorities in Tunisia (71%) and Sudan (56%) “agree” or “strongly agree” that religious leaders should not interfere in voters’ decisions. Only pluralities agree in Egypt (48%) and Morocco (44%), and in Algeria it’s a minority view (28%).
  • Sudan is the only country where a majority (52%) believe they would be better off if “religious people hold public positions in the state.” Tunisians strongly reject the idea (66%).
  • A majority (52%) of Sudanese would also welcome a political system governed by Islamic law without elections and political parties. Opposition outweighs support for such a system in the other four countries and is particularly strong is Tunisia (77%).

Islam and democracy have often been described as antipodes, or at least as an awkward match (Huntington, 1997; Kedourie, 2013). Fueled by terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and Boko Haram, intense public debate in the West has linked the relative scarcity of democracies in majority-Muslim countries (Fish, 2002) with the belief that authoritarian conditions are more likely to foster radicalization. Many writers have argued, however, that Islam itself is no impediment to democracy (Lewis, 1993; Stepan & Robertson, 2003; Diamond, 2010), and studies using survey data have found no clear pattern differentiating Muslims from non-Muslims in support for democracy (Tessler, 2002; Bratton, 2003; Ciftci, 2010; Pew Research Center, 2012).

To many, the popular uprisings during the “Arab Spring” of 2011 pointed to the viability of democratic governance in predominantly Muslim Arab countries. But to date, only Tunisia has experienced a political transition to a nascent regime of democracy. Other Arab states have reacted to popular dissent with authoritarian crackdowns or have become engulfed in conflict.

How do ordinary North Africans feel about the relationship between Islam and democracy? Using a set of questions asked by Afrobarometer in the majority-Muslim North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Sudan in 2015, this dispatch examines the political role that respondents want the Muslim faith and its leaders to play.

Overall, most see Islam and democracy as compatible and support equal political rights for non-Muslims, although these positions are considerably weaker in Algeria than in the other countries. The separation of religion and politics has more supporters than opponents, but a system governed by Islamic law without elections and political parties wins majority support in Sudan.

Thomas Isbell

Post-doctoral research fellow and research assistant at Afrobarometer