By William Fisher
One of my readers in the Netherlands posed a question about how a new post-Mubarak Egypt might impact Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He wrote:
“I am again appalled by the lack of relation in the comments between the US position on Israel and Egypt, Mubarak. Why is everybody so afraid of that lobby you think?”
The lobby he was referring to is AIPAC, the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Council, which advocates for Israeli positions in the United States. AIPAC is the largest pro-Israel organization in the U.S., and is highly influential at many levels of U.S. Government, from Congress to the White House.
Why are the Israelis and AIPAC worried about the implications of the dramatic struggle currently pitting pro-Democracy Egyptians against those who support the government of President Hosni Mubarak.
The Israelis’ worst nightmare: A new regime comes to power in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood occupies a major position in a governing coalition. Egypt trashes its 32-year peace treaty with Israel, allows arms to be shipped from Egypt to Hamas in Gaza, and ends its role in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Is there any factual basis for Israeli fears? Research carried out in Egypt by the Pew Global Attitudes Project on “Egypt, Democracy and Islam,” may provide some answers.
Last Spring, Richard Auxier of the Pew Research Center examined the views of Egyptians and six other Muslim publics about politics and the role Islam should play in it.
They found that, while a 59%-majority of Muslims in Egypt believed that democracy was preferable to any other kind of government, 59 percent also said they back Islamists, and 95% of them said they would welcome Islamic influence over their politics.
Pew also found that 50 per cent of Egyptians support Hamas, 30 per cent support Hizbullah and 20 per cent support al Qaeda.
Eighty-two percent of Egyptians support executing adulterers by stoning, 77% support whipping and cutting the hands off thieves, and 84% support executing any Muslim who changes his religion, the Pew survey found.
The Pew researchers concluded that “The Islam [the Egyptians] support is “the al Qaeda Salafist version.”
They found that support for democracy was much lower among Egyptians than it is elsewhere in the Middle East. In Lebanon, 81% preferred it to any other kind of government. “In Turkey, 76% of Muslims supported it. Roughly two-thirds of Muslims also preferred democracy to any other kind of government in Jordan (69%), Nigeria (66%) and Indonesia (65%),” the research revealed.
Among the Muslim publics surveyed, only in Pakistan (42%) did fewer Muslims say democracy was preferable to any other kind of government than in Egypt.
Pew’s Auxier also found that, by wide margins, Muslims believed that Islam's influence in politics was positive rather than negative. In Egypt, Islam's role in politics was seen favorably by an overwhelming 85%-to-2% margin among Muslims, he wrote.
He also concluded:
Islam was seen as a positive rather than negative influence in politics by equally impressive margins in Indonesia (91% to 6%), Nigeria (82% to 10%), Jordan (76% to 14%) and Pakistan (69% to 6%).
Concerns about Islamic extremism -- both in their country and around the world -- were widespread in Egypt. About six-in-ten Egyptians were very (20%) or somewhat (41%) concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in their country.
By comparison, at least three-quarters in Lebanon (80%) and Nigeria (76%) were concerned about Islamic extremism in their nation, while less than half expressed such concern in Jordan (44%) and Turkey (43%).
Asked about extremism around the world, 30% of Egyptians were very concerned about Islamic extremism and 40% were somewhat concerned.
Large majorities in five of the other Muslim publics surveyed also expressed concern about Islamic extremism around the world. Only in Turkey did a majority not express concern.
Egyptians were split on how big a role Islam played in the political life of their country. Among Muslims in Egypt, 48% said Islam played a large role in their nation's political life while a nearly equal 49% said it played only a small role.
Divisions about the perception of Islam's role in politics were also seen in Lebanon and Pakistan.
In contrast, Muslims in Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey overwhelmingly agreed that Islam played a large role in their politics.
In Lebanon and Turkey, close to a third said that Islam had a negative influence in politics, but in both nations more believed Islam's influence was positive than said it was negative.
Respondents who had a positive view of Islam's influence included both those who said Islam was playing a large role in their country's political life and saw this as a good thing and those who said Islam was playing a small role and saw this as a bad thing. The reverse was true for those respondents who had a negative view of Islam's influence.
Asked whether there is a struggle in their nations between those who want to modernize their country and Islamic fundamentalists, a 61%-majority of Muslims in Egypt said they did not see a struggle. Just 31% of Egyptian Muslims saw a struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists in their country. Among the seven Muslim publics surveyed in 2010, only in Jordan (20%) did fewer say they saw such a struggle.
Among Egyptian Muslims who did see a struggle, a 59%-majority sided with the fundamentalists. Just 27% of those who saw such struggle sided with the modernizers.
This stands in sharp contrast with four other Muslim publics surveyed. Many more Muslims in Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia than in Egypt said they saw a struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists in their country.
In each of these nations, though, a majority of those seeing a conflict sided with the modernizers. Nigeria was the only other country surveyed in which a majority of Muslims who saw such a conflict identified with the fundamentalists.
Concerns about Islamic extremism -- both in their country and around the world -- were widespread in Egypt. About six-in-ten Egyptians said they were very (20%) or somewhat (41%) concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in their country.
By comparison, at least three-quarters in Lebanon (80%) and Nigeria (76%) said they were concerned about Islamic extremism in their nation, while less than half expressed such concern in Jordan (44%) and Turkey (43%).
Asked about extremism around the world, 30% of Egyptians said they were very concerned about Islamic extremism and 40% were somewhat concerned.
Large majorities in five of the other Muslim publics surveyed also expressed concern about Islamic extremism around the world. Only in Turkey did a majority not express concern, Auxier’s research found.
So are the worries of the Israelis and their U.S. spokesman justified?
Many observers believe that the Islamist component of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt does not bode well for Israel. They acknowledge that the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have moderated its strategy and tactics over the years. But they believe that the face the Brotherhood is currently showing to the world is simply a device to exploit the pro-democracy movement to their advantage. They do not trust the sincerity of the Brotherhood’s current leaders and deny that the Brotherhood now belongs in the mainstream of Egyptian politics.
They also believe that for every Egyptian who is a member of the Brotherhood, a majority of Egyptians are not members but agree with the organization’s objectives. They say that, outside Egypt, the Brotherhood’s main objective is to empower the Palestinians to defeat the Israelis.
This is the view that appears to have been adopted by those at the more conservative end of the U.S. political spectrum.
At the other end, many more liberal analysts contend that fears of the Muslim Brotherhood have been exaggerated and are being used as a scare tactic to turn international public opinion against President Mubarak’s immediate resignation.
The Brotherhood is officially illegal in Egypt. But it is tolerated and its members run for Parliament as “independents.”
These observers point out that, in elections in Egypt, the Brotherhood has never been able to garner more than 20 per cent of the vote. They also believe that, for the near-term future, a post-Mubarak Egypt would probably be headed by a coalition government of national unity. The diverse composition of that governing coalition, they say, would reign in any radical objectives the Muslim Brotherhood might want to achieve.
At this stage in the pro-democracy movement, no one can say with any certainty that he/she knows which way Egypt will turn. The only thing we know for certain is that Egypt will never be the same again.