Tensions in Iraq may be dominating the headlines, but there are complex patterns of division and polarization across the Arab region. When the World Economic Forum polled experts and leaders on the world’s most significant challenges for the Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 (now available in Arabic), rising societal tensions and polarization in the Middle East and North Africa came out top.

A society is defined as “polarized” when it splits into sizeable groups, each alienated from the others. A close analysis of the World Value Survey (2010-2014) reveals an Arab region that is more divided than the rest of the world along four crucial axes: life satisfaction and feeling of control, meaning and practice of religion, levels of social and personal trust, and government redistribution policies.

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In countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, life satisfaction and feeling of control over one’s life is unevenly distributed, more so than almost anywhere else in the world.

Equally, Arab countries vary in their levels of social and personal trust. In particular, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Jordan stand out from the rest of the world. In other countries where personal trust is low, such as Sweden or Poland, social trust tends to be high, thus creating some equilibrium – but this is not the case in these transitional Arab countries.

When it comes to the important characteristics of market economies, such as competition and the role of government over the individual, again Morocco and Tunisia stand out from the rest of the Arab region, as do Egypt and Yemen.

But polarization is not just economic. Countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and even Yemen are home to groups that feel strongly, but very differently, about the role that religion should play in society and politics.

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In order to better understand the dynamics of this divided Arab world, we looked more closely at Egypt, where we found evidence of polarization along income lines.This has not always been the case, and is a result of the economic liberalization programmes of the past two decades, exacerbated by the 2008 global economic crisis, which reduced growth in Egypt and led to an expansion of the crony capitalism model.

As dissatisfaction grew among the lowest income groups, the differences between them and middle-to-high earners increased. In contrast, over the same period, Turkey was able to maintain satisfaction levels across these income groups, despite the fact it implemented economic liberalization reforms of its own.

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You would expect to see polarization when there are transitions in the democratic landscape. Looking at 25 cases of political change around the world, from the 1990s to today, we found that the differences in life satisfaction or confidence in institutions were wider in fast-changing countries than in stable ones.

Further investigation showed that countries achieving successful transitions also experienced a decline in polarization. We have interpreted this result broadly, since causality may be running both ways: unsuccessful transitions may divide societies, while transitions in highly polarized societies may not succeed.

Interestingly, we found that in cases where political transformation was successful, there was evidence it had been preceded by high levels of social divisions, which suggests that high levels of polarization can be useful, forcing these transitions to take place.

On the other hand, low levels of polarization were found to precede unsuccessful transitions, which implied that when relatively united societies start a transition, they have less chance of making it to democracy, perhaps because there isn’t enough discontent to drive change.

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Taken together, these results suggest that polarization plays an ambivalent role in transitions. High levels of it are necessary to initiate change, but after the transition it must be addressed and contained, or else the transition process will find itself derailed and at a risk of failing.

These results have important implications for the region. If transitions to democracy are aborted, as seems to be the case in Egypt and Libya, polarization can be expected to rise, possibly leading to new social explosions in the future. On the other hand, when the democratic process delivers, as seems to be the case in Tunisia, one can expect societies to become less divided over time.

The Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 is now available in Arabic.

Authors: Mohamad Al-Ississ is a visiting scholar at Harvard Kennedy School and Professor of Economics at the American University in Cairo; Ishac Diwan is a Lecturer in Public Policy and Director for Africa and the Middle East at the Center for International Development at Harvard University. They are both members of the Global Agenda Council on the Arab World

Image: A woman shows her ink stained finger after casting her vote at a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, December 6, 2011. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh