NEWSLETTER: Volume 2, Issue 2


This is part of the MENA Politics Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 2, Fall 2019. Download the PDF of the full issue here.

By Nadine Sika, American University in Cairo

Political trust is essential for stability in authoritarian regimes. It is an individual’s evaluation of how well the government operates, according to their expectations.[i] Political trust includes confidence in state institutions like the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and the police and can respond to short-term evaluations of social and economic life, changing across time and space.[ii] When political institutions do not meet their citizens’ expectations, trust is likely to decline.[iii] Political trust is also an indicator of political stability.[iv] During the past decade, political trust has been decreasing in all regime types, while contentious activities like participation in demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and online activism has been increasing.[v]

Within a context of rising authoritarianism, repression, censorship, and self-censorship, finding empirical evidence for state-society relations becomes a challenge. Working in conditions with such increasing restrictions for fieldwork, I have found that surveys can be a valuable tool. Below, I will review some methodological opportunities and challenges from my years of conducting surveys in the Middle East and North Africa, then highlight the results of one survey that changes our understanding of how increasing state repression affects political trust and participation in contentious events.

Trust and contentious politics in changing regimes

Top-down approaches to understanding authoritarian politics demonstrates that a regime’s capacity to repress its opposition is essential for its survival.[vi] However, during my past seven years of fieldwork in the region, it seems that repression helps regimes in maintaining their power only in the short term. In the long term, the excessive use of violence might be adding to their volatility. A major puzzle for me as a scholar is whether the excessive use of force against political opposition and activists impacts citizens’ trust in their political institutions and whether political trust is related to contentious politics in regimes undergoing political transitions. The literature on political trust and participation is primarily on democratic regimes. Some scholars have analyzed the relationship between trust and participation in formal institutions like political parties and civil society organizations in authoritarian regimes. [vii] However, the relation between trust and participation in contentious activities in regimes that are democratizing or reverting back to authoritarianism needs further analysis.

In this article, I explore political trust and contentious participation in Turkey and Tunisia. Do citizens’ political trust levels impact their participation in contentious activities? Turkey and Tunisia are both undergoing political change: the former has been gradually sliding back to an authoritarian political system, while the latter has been gradually transitioning to democracy. However, in each case, I demonstrate that the increased reliance on the security apparatus— especially the police force repressing opposition —leads to more street demonstrations and activism against the regime. Preliminary analysis of survey data suggests that activists are motivated to participate through unconventional means, like demonstrations, as a result of their low levels of trust in the police force.

How can we measure and analyze trust in Arab regimes?

The Arab uprisings of 2010 to 2011were followed by an surge of field research in the region. Scholars who have been working for years on authoritarian resilience and politics from above, revisited their analysis and started developing new lines of inquiries on state-society relations.[viii]

During this period, I was involved in two major research projects on young people in the region, which required much quantitative and qualitative fieldwork. For the first project, “Arab Youth: From Engagement to Inclusion?” sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation, I conducted fieldwork in Egypt and Morocco during 2012 to 2013.[ix] For the second project, Power2Youth,[x] sponsored by the European Commission I was part of a research team that conducted fieldwork in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey, Palestine, and Tunisia from 2014 until 2016.

The difference between the fieldwork experience for both projects is stark, especially for a scholar living in and working on the region. Fieldwork for the first project, especially semi-structured interviews and surveys, was smooth and enjoyable. The majority of our respondents were enthusiastic to participate and were eager to provide our research teams with substantial information on their perceptions of the Arab uprisings, their role as youth in socio-political change, and their main challenges as young people during the transitional phase. Conducting survey analysis in universities was also a positive experience, with many students eager to participate in the survey analysis and with no security intervention in the content of the survey questions. 

The second project, on the other hand, was implemented almost three years after the “Spring,” as the countries under analysis had already started to revert back to authoritarianism (Egypt), autocratize (Turkey), democratize with institutional difficulties (Tunisia), remain autocratic (Morocco and Palestine), or experience large episodes of contentious events (Lebanon). Doing fieldwork for the second project was not an easy task, especially for the research teams in Turkey, Palestine, and Egypt. For instance, convincing participants to take part in focus groups was complicated, as many young people felt uncomfortable discussing their attitudes toward the ruling elite. Some did not refer to the political opposition groups in name, they would just describe the work of “the opposition” generally. Finding interview partners was also complicated, especially in Palestine and Egypt. In Egypt, only 50 percent of young people who were approached to be interviewed agreed to take part in the research. The survey study was another hurdle in Egypt and Palestine. The problem was not conducting the survey project itself, but in being granted permission to implement it in the first place. Questions on trust in institutions were not permitted in the Gaza Strip or in Egypt.


I test the relationship between participation in contentious activities and political trust by analyzing the results of the survey study that was conducted in Turkey and Tunisia as part of the Power2Youth research project.[xi] In Turkey, the survey was carried out from January 2 through February 10, 2016. The sample size was 1804 young people ages 18 to 29. The survey included 226 clusters, which represented all regions in addition to all metropolitan, non-metropolitan, and rural districts. In Tunisia, the sample size was 1022 young people ages 18 to 29, and the survey was conducted from July23  to August 29, 2016. The sample was drawn from the 2014 population sample frame in which enumeration areas served as clusters.

We selected these cases because both have been undergoing political change. Tunisia has been democratizing since the Arab uprisings, while Turkey has been undergoing an autocratic reverse wave since the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the 2016 coup attempt.

My main hypothesis is that low political trust levels lead to participation in contentious activities in authoritarian regimes and in regimes that are undergoing political transitions. To test for this hypothesis, I constructed a “contentious activism” index in which the different modes of contentious activities were tested. The questions were dichotomous variables for which the interviewees were asked whether they ever participated in peaceful demonstrations, protest movements, strikes, boycott activities, or online activism. The answers are coded either “yes” or “no.” The index is composed of these six variables. In Tunisia the Cronbach alpha is at 0.79 and in Turkey it is 0.69. An OLS regression model for each country was constructed, where the dependent variable is the contentious activism index, and the independent variables are the political trust variables, i.e. trust in the army, police force, courts, parliament, central and local government, and political parties. We controlled for gender, unemployment, and education level.[xii] 

Survey results

The survey results demonstrate that political trust levels vary in these two countries and according to the political institutions. For instance, trust in the army is very high in Tunisia at 84 percent and in Turkey with 68 percent. Trust in the police force is also somewhat high in both at 58 percent in Tunisia and 62 percent in Turkey. On the other hand, trust in the parliament and political parties is much lower, with almost 8 percent trust in the parliament in Tunisia and 38 percent in Turkey. Trust in the central government is also very low in Tunisia, with almost 11 percent, while it is at 50 percent in Turkey.

activists are motivated to participate as a result of their low levels of trust in the police force.

The results of the OLS regression models demonstrate that there is a strong negative correlation between contentious activism and trust in the police force, the political institution which mostly directly represses citizens. These results are partial confirmation of the hypothesis that activism is a result of low political trust levels. The results only confirm that low trust levels in the police force cause participation in contentious activities. Hence, in regimes where the police force is either known to have repressed political activists in the past (Tunisia) or in which police force is increasing its repression in the present (Turkey), there is a negative relation between contentious activism and trust in the police. This implies that even if trust levels in a certain political institution is high amongst citizens at large, activists are motivated to participate in contentious activities as a result of their specific distrust of the repressive apparatus.


The preliminary results for this survey analysis demonstrate that low trust levels in the police force motivate individuals to participate in contentious activities. This finding needs to be further explored by scholars studying authoritarian institutions, democratization, and autocratic reversals, since one of the main assertions in this line of analysis is that regime repression is one of the tools for authoritarian resilience.[xiii] While authoritarian regimes increase repression to promote stability and survival, this study shows that the more a regime uses repression against activists, the more likely they distrust the police force and that contentious activities will ensue. The preliminary results also demonstrate that scholars should not only focus on the socio-economic grievances faced by citizens as a main cause for instability and contentious activities, but should also analyze other political and trust variables, which have an important impact on contentious participation. Regimes that are undergoing authoritarian reversals need further investigations, especially in regards to the rise of contentious activism and its relation to political trust. The case of Turkey here begins to sheds light on this relation, but more analyses should be conducted in other regimes for more generalizations.


[i] Marc Hetherington, “The Political Relevance of Political Trust, American Political Science Review vol. 92, no. 4 (1998): 791-808.

[ii] Eric Uslaner, “The Study of Trust,” in The Oxford Handbook of Social and Political Trust, by Eric Uslaner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018): 3-13.

[iii] Jack Citrin and Laura Stoker, “Political Trust in a Cynical Age,” Annual Review of Political Science vol. 21 (2018): 49-70; William Mishler and Richard Rose, “What are the Origins of Political Trust? Testing Instituttional and Cultural Theories in Post-communist Societies,” Comparative Political Studies 34, no. 1 (2001): 30-62.


[iv] Kenneth Newton, “Social and Political Trust,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior, by Russel Dalton and Hans-Dieter Klingemann (Oxford: oxford University Press, 2007): 342-61.

[v] Mark Beissinger, “”Conventional” and “Virtual” Civil Societies in Autocratic Regimes,” Comparative Politics vol. 49, no. 3 (2017):. 351-372.

[vi] Johannes Gerschewski, “When political insitutions decline nstitutions like eir expectations. nment operates, from the individual’ the P2Y evidence)rom The Three Pillars of Stability: Legitimation, Repression and Co-opation in Autocratic Regimes,” Democratization vol. 20, no. 1 (2013): 38-57.

[vii] Amaney Jamal, “When is Social Trust a Desirable Outcome? Examining Levels of Trust in the Arab World,” Comparative Political Studies vol. 40, no. 11 (2007): 1328-1349; Justin Gengler, Mark Tessler, Darwish Al-Emadi and Abdoulaye Diop, “Civic and Democratic Citizenship in Qatar: Findings from the First Qatar World Values Survey,” Middle East Law and Governance vol. 5, no. 3 (2013): 258-279.

[viii] See for instance Joshua Stacher, “Fragmenting States, New Regimes: Militarized State Violence and Transition in the Middle East,” Democratization vol. 22, no. 15 (2015): 259-275.

[ix] For more information on the project see:

[x] When political insitutions decline nstitutions like eir expectations. nment operates, from the individual’ the P2Y evidence)rom For more information on the project see:

[xi] The research design and the implementation of the survey study was conducted by the Fafo Research Foundation in Norway. For more information on the survey results and methodology please see:

[xii] For a full regression table, please email the author at:

[xiii] Johannes Gerschewski, op.cit; Mark Lichbach, “Deterrence or Escalation? The Puzzle of Aggregate Studies of Repression and Dissent,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 31, no. 2 (1987): 266-297.

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