By William Fisher
Close to two-thirds of the Egyptian public is satisfied with the way things are going in their country, pleased that former president Hosni Mubarak is gone, and optimistic about the future, according to a new survey by the Pew
Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.
But the readiness of the public to accept military rule, or rule by a religious-based political party, and to abrogate its peace treaty with Israel, raises questions about what kind of Egypt it will be.
The Pew organization said, “In this new political era, Egyptians are embracing long-standing bases of power, and new ones, as well. The military and its leadership are very well regarded, and the Egyptian public is clearly open to religion-based political parties being part of a future government. Most have a favorable opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood, and looking ahead to the elections, it has as much potential support as any of a number of political parties.”
The Egyptian public’s unwavering support for the military is particularly problematic. In the early days of the Tahrir Square revolution, the Army won the applause of the anti-government protesters by using its tanks to keep pro-Mubarak forces from attacking demonstrators. Later, the Army was seen clearly to take the side of the anti-government protesters.
But, even during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the Army was accused of roughing up and arresting many anti-government demonstrators, torturing them in custody, and holding some of these civilians for military trials. Their actions sparked an outcry from the anti-Mubarak forces and an investigation by the Army Supreme Council, which is running the country until elections are held.
Egypt-watchers say the high respect in which the Army is held dates back at least to Egypt’s three wars with Israel. Thanks to Egyptian Government propaganda, many Egyptians believe Egypt was victorious in these wars. After the 1973 war, known as the Yom Kippur War, Egypt regained control of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had won as part of the agreement ending the 1967 Six Day War. But there is no question outside Egypt that Israel was the victor in all three wars.
It was the conviction that Egypt and its Arab allies would never defeat Israel militarily that drove President Anwar Sadat to make his historic visit to Israel in 1977. That courageous act formed the basis of the US-brokered peace treaty that currently exists.
If post-revolution Egypt appears to distancing itself from what most of The West saw as the protesters’ democratic vision of the country in the future, the Pew survey also uncovered many contrary and contradictory opinions.
For example, while Egyptians would find a military or religious-based government acceptable, Pew finds that “other agents of political change are also viewed positively by majorities of Egyptians, including the relatively secular April 6 Movement and political leaders Amr Moussa, Ayman
Nour, and Mohamed ElBaradei.”
This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the myriad of contradictions that co-exist in modern Egypt. In fact Pew found near-unanimity on only two issues: “No dividend emerges for the United States from the political changes that have occurred in Egypt. Favorable ratings of the U.S. remain as low as they have been in recent years, and many Egyptians say they want a less close relationship with America. Israel fares even more poorly. By a 54%-to-36% margin, Egyptians want the peace treaty with that country annulled.”
But Egyptians, repeatedly burned by unkept leadership promises, appear to bring a healthy dose of caution into their assessments of the future. Pew notes: “This is not to say that many do not remain cautious about the prospects for political change – just 41% say that a free and fair choice in the next election is very likely, while as many (43%) think it is only somewhat likely, and 16% say it is unlikely.”
The Pew survey was conducted nationwide. Face-to-face interviews were
conducted with 1,000 adults in Egypt between March 24 and April 7, 2011. The poll finds Egyptians anxious for democracy and accountable government. When asked what has concerned them most about Egypt in recent years, corruption and a lack of democracy top the list.
And Pew says that support for democracy is clearly on the rise in Egypt. “Last year, 60% of Egyptians said that democracy is preferable to any other type of government; today, 71% hold this view. By a 64%-to-34% majority, most say they favor a democratic form of government over a strong leader.”
Four years ago the public was evenly divided on this basic question about governance. Moreover, 62% want parliamentary and presidential elections as soon as possible, rather than delaying them to give political parties more time to organize.
Yet, the poll finds that the desire for free multiparty elections co-exists, and
potentially competes with, other aspirations.
“More Egyptians say that improved economic conditions (82%) and a fair judiciary (79%) are very important than say that about honest, multiparty elections (55%). And maintaining law and order is also more highly rated (63%). In that regard, when asked to choose which is more important – a democratic government, even if there is some risk of political instability, or a stable government that is not fully democratic – democracy wins out, but by a narrow 54%-majority; 32% choose stability, and as many as 14% of Egyptians say they are not sure. When a good democracy is tested against a strong economy, it is a 47%-to-49% draw, respectively.”
Regarding economic conditions, the survey finds Egyptians somewhat more positive than they were a year ago. About one-third (34%) now rate the economy as good, compared with 20% in 2010; still, most (64%) say economic conditions are bad.
But fully 56% think the economy will improve over the next year. Just 25% were optimistic in 2010.
The military is now almost universally seen (88%) as having a good influence on the way things are going in Egypt. Fully 90% rate military chief Mohamed Tantawi favorably. In contrast, views of the police are on balance negative (39% good influence, 61% bad influence).
The court system and religious leaders are seen by most as having a good influence on the country, 67% and 81% respectively, but it is of note that fewer Egyptians give religious leaders very good ratings this year than did so in 2007 (29% vs. 43%).
Most see the traditional news media’s influence as having a positive impact on the way things are going, and the survey found as many as 23% saying they use social networking sites to get news and information about the political situation in Egypt.
Pew says Egyptians are welcoming some forms of change more than others. While half say it is very important that religious parties be allowed to be part of the government, only 27% give a similar priority to assuring that the military falls under civilian control. Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. Women themselves are more likely to say it is very important that they are assured equal rights than are men (48% vs. 30%).
Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other
religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.
Egyptians hold diverse views about religion. About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.
Those who disagree with fundamentalists are almost evenly divided on whether the treaty with Israel should be annulled, while others favor ending the pact by a goodly margin.
Only 20% of Egyptians hold a favorable opinion of the United States, which is nearly identical to the 17% who rated it favorably in 2010. Better educated and younger Egyptians have a slightly more positive attitude toward the U.S. than do other Egyptians.
President Barrack Obama gets more negative than positive reviews for how he is handling the political changes sweeping through the Middle East: 52% disapprove of how Obama is dealing with the calls for political change in nations such as Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Libya. A plurality of those who disapprove say Obama has shown too little support for those who are calling for change.
When asked specifically about the U.S. response to the political situation in
Egypt, 39% say the U.S. has had a negative impact, while just 22% say it has had a positive effect, and 35% volunteer that the U.S. has neither positively nor negatively influenced the situation in their country.
Looking to the future, few Egyptians (15%) want closer ties with the U.S., while 43% would prefer a more distant relationship, and 40% would like the
relationship between the two countries to remain about as close as it has been in recent years.
In any environment, it would be surprising to find unanimity among the disparate groups that conceived and then carried out an 18-day revolution that brought down a three-decade dictatorial ruler. In Egypt, the hub of the Arab Middle East, that kind of unanimity would be nothing less than spectacular.
That is simply unlikely to happen, and so we in The West need to re-learn how to live with an environment rich with ambiguity and contradictions. Egyptian attitudes toward military or religious rule are not good news for small “d” democrats. Nor is the antipathy toward the United States and toward the idea of peace with Israel.
For the US, the Pew survey results should be a huge red light, a wake-up call to all those who believed that the status quo ante is something that could be bought with more aid dollars. We have been down that road before; it didn’t work. What we got for our “investment” was revolution. Being able to offer anything credible to the pro-democracy forces will require nothing less than restoration of the credibility America once enjoyed here. But the suspicion and distrust of the US is palpable. Turning that around is going to be a hard sell. But that’s the challenge for America.
The challenge for Israel is even more formidable, particularly given the hard-line attitudes of Israel’s current government. Could one dare to hope that Israel might publicly celebrate the triumph of self-determination over dictatorship? Not likely, as it was the dictator who came to be seen as the lone anchor of stability in the Arab Middle East.
Now, after three wars and thirty years of Egyptian government propaganda, even an Israeli government prepared to acknowledge the miracle of the revolution would find this a hard sell. Egyptians will change their minds about Israel when they see a few tangible actions indicating that Israel genuinely wants a peace settlement with the Palestinians. These days, such indications are in very short supply.