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Democracy in Arabia?

PARIS – In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the public’s trust alleviates pressure on the state, allowing it to function more effectively. This should give some comfort to governments in the Arab world, where a 2012 survey of young people showed 72% of the respondents expressing greater trust in their governments. But what, then, accounts for the continuing civil turmoil and government paralysis in the Arab-Spring countries?

A more recent version of the survey provides some clues. A large majority of Arab youths, around 70%, say that they are most influenced by parents, family, and religion, whereas only about a third report that elite groups – writers, business leaders, community leaders, and media outlets – have any influence on their outlook on life. Indeed, just 16% reported that pop stars influenced their outlook.

These figures provide some useful insights into the evolving social fabric of Arab societies. Normally, people are open to influence from those whom they trust and wish to emulate. The fact that a large majority of Arabs turns to family and religion is highly revealing.

Arab societies, particularly those in turmoil, are regressing to what another French social theorist, Émile Durkheim, called “mechanistic solidarity.” This is social solidarity that evolves along lines of kinship and religion, underpinned by a sense of belonging to the same “homogenous” group. Durkheim contrasts this phenomenon with the more progressive “organic solidarity” that evolves in modern societies according to people’s professional and functional relationships.