x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

As Egypt's revolution falters, Americans shun an old ally

One-half of all American voters now hold an unfavourable view of Egypt and its leadership. This was not always the case.

American public opinion has soured on Egypt, with one-half of all American voters now holding an unfavourable view of that country and its leadership.

This was not always the case.

My brother John and I have been measuring American attitudes towards the Arab world for two decades. For much of that time, Egypt had the highest ratings of any country in the region. In fact, in most years from 1993 until 2010 around 60 per cent of Americans rated Egypt positively.

However, in our most recent poll, conducted last month, only 36 per cent of Americans report having a favourable opinion of Egypt, while 48 per cent have an unfavourable view.

This dramatic shift in US opinion is a function of two main factors: concern about the role being played by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the American public's general lack of awareness about Egypt's contemporary history.

While modern Egypt has been known in the Arab world for its cinema, comedy, music, and political and intellectual leadership, that image of the country was never established in the United States. As a result, positive attitudes were "soft" and or devoid of other factors.

Back when Egypt's ratings were high, in response to the open-ended question, "What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear Egypt?", the overwhelming majority of answers recalled the "pyramids", "the Sphinx" and the other "glories of ancient Egypt". There were also respondents who mentioned the late Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, and the Camp David Accords.

In the early months of the Arab Spring the images of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators called to mind for many Americans their own civil rights movement, or the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. After an initial drop in ratings in early 2011, by mid-2011 Egypt's favourable ratings were back up to 60 per cent.

That support has since evaporated. But in the March 2013 poll, when we asked for respondent's "first thought when they hear Egypt", "pyramids" was still the most frequently mentioned term, followed closely by "trouble", "unrest" and "Muslim Brotherhood".

In January 2012, we asked Americans whether they were hopeful that the Arab Spring would bring about positive change. By more than two-to-one they answered in the affirmative.

But in the tumultuous 16 months that have followed, Americans have lost that hope. Today, the number of American voters who say they are disappointed with "how the Arab Spring has played out in Egypt" is three-times greater than those who say they are still hopeful that positive change will come.

As much as "soft" attitudes are to blame, concern with the Muslim Brotherhood is also a factor in the new negative opinion toward Egypt. Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is only viewed favourably by 14 per cent of Americans, while over one-half have an unfavourable view of him. By almost three-to-one, Americans rate former President Hosni Mubarak as having been more of a friend and ally of the US than Mr Morsi.

It is important to note that it is not anti-Muslim animus that drives these numbers, since strong negative views of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi exist even among those Americans who hold a favourable view of Muslims.

But there are other consequences that result from this change in attitudes. Many Americans now question whether the US government can work with a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt. They also question whether the US should provide military and civilian aid to Egypt. A majority of Americans also say they worry about the Brotherhood taking over in other countries, and say that they support actions by other Arab governments to "limit the activity of Muslim Brotherhood branches operating in their countries".

Another by-product of this negative turn and the general disappointment with the trajectory of the Arab uprisings has been the public's embrace of an interesting combination of principles they feel should guide American foreign policy.

For example, when American voters are asked whether the US "should support governments, whether they are elected or not, if they work closely with us to promote regional stability and protect our interests", or whether the US "should only support democratically elected governments, even if those governments might pursue policies that are hostile to our interests", 72 per cent chose the first approach, compared to 17 per cent for the second.

And when asked to choose between providing support "for any government that is democratically elected, even if it is pursuing policies that compromise the rights of minorities in their countries" or "as a condition for US support, we should require that any government, whether it has been elected or not, protect the rights of all their citizens", just 10 per cent chose the second approach (compared to 85 per cent for the first).

Two years ago, I compared Egypt to Broadway, noting that it didn't matter so much how events played out on other stages across the Arab world because the world would judge the Arab Spring by how it played out in Egypt.

We are now two-and-a-half years into the Arab Spring and the blush is off the rose. Americans are disappointed, attitudes toward Egypt have soured, and the public has adopted a less romantic, more realist approach to US relations across the Arab world.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa