The US-Egypt relationship is on the rocks. If it is to be salvaged, both sides will need to change course and pay attention to the concerns of their respective publics.
A year after massive and sustained demonstrations forced Hosni Mubarak out of office, Egypt remains quite unsettled, and many Egyptians and Americans are uncertain about that country's future.
In a poll of Egyptian opinion conducted by Zogby Research Services (ZRS) in late September 2011, Egyptians were clear about the fact that their political priorities had not changed since the upheavals of January and February. When ZRS last polled in Egypt in late 2009, Egyptians said their top concerns, in order, were improving health care, expanding employment, increasing educational opportunities and ending corruption and nepotism. Far down the list were expanding democracy and political reform.
Two years later, the rank order of this list hasn't much changed. Employment, education, health care and ending corruption still form the top tier, with democracy-related concerns ranking lower. Amidst the continuing turmoil that is rocking the country and the stand-off between demonstrators, the newly elected parliament and the military authority, what most Egyptians want is a government free of corruption that can create jobs and provide for their basic needs. This want has not has changed. Nor has it been delivered. Nevertheless, most Egyptians remain hopeful that change will be forthcoming.
Two recent polls by ZRS establish that majorities in Egypt are optimistic. Eight in 10 express the hope that their lives will improve in the next five years, and more than one-half reserve their criticism saying that "it is too early" to judge the success or failure of the process underway.
What has not changed are Egyptians' views of the US. In mid-summer 2011, only 5 per cent held a favourable view of the US, pointing to American bias towards Israel and meddling in Arab affairs as the main reasons for their negative views, with 89 per cent saying that US policies do not "contribute to peace and stability in the Arab World".
For the first time in two decades of polling US attitudes toward the Arab World, ZRS found that Americans now hold a net negative view of Egypt. In the past, Egypt always fared quite well in US opinion surveys. Since the 1990s Egypt's favourable ratings have been between the mid-50 per cent to mid-60 per cent range, while the country's unfavourable ratings were, on average, around 20 per cent. In the last year of President Mubarak's rule, positive US opinions towards Egypt declined, slipping into the high 40 per cent range. But with positive US media coverage of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, favourable ratings shot up, increasing by 20 points. That was one year ago.
A more recent survey of American opinion, conducted in January by JZ Analytics for NYU Abu Dhabi, shows that the continued turmoil in Egypt, the behaviour of the military authority and questions about the Muslim Brotherhood's new leadership role have dramatically altered US perceptions. Now only 32 per cent of Americans have a favourable attitude towards Egypt, with 34 per cent holding a negative view.
The poll also shows that some Americans are uneasy with political developments in Egypt. When asked specifically how they felt about the Muslim Brotherhood winning control in the last election, only 4 per cent said that this was a "positive development for Egypt".
These numbers are important. The emphasis given by Egyptians to the need for material improvement in their lives, and the (maybe unrealistically) high level of optimism expressed by Egyptians establish markers that neither the military government nor the new parliament can afford to ignore.
There is also a cautionary note here that Egypt's young revolutionaries should take note of. The public may still support the revolution that brought down the old regime, but what they want now are jobs and real improvement in the quality of their lives. As valid as the young revolutionaries' critique of the military and security services may be, they must take care not to lose public support or allow the military leadership to drive a wedge between them and the broader public.
Egypt's leaders, both new and old, need to be attentive to the dramatic drop in US public support. In the past, Egypt could count on high favourable ratings from Americans. But Americans didn't really know Egypt, and US politicians knew that Egypt could be counted on to support American policy. Today, this has changed and the polls demonstrate the impact of this change. If Egypt's military and government want to risk a confrontation with Washington - as over the arrest of pro-democracy NGO members - they may find that they have diminished American public support and fewer allies than before.
America, too, should take note of these polls. Wanting democracy for Egypt may be noble, but US standing in Egypt and the region, as a whole, is too low for American leaders to be using the bully-pulpit. What Egyptians most want to see from the US is a change in America's regional policy and help in building their country's capacity to provide for people's basic needs.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
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