Marc Lynch

Arab public opinion in 2009

Arab public opinion in 2009

 This morning I was delighted to have the chance to comment on the 2009 edition of the annual survey of public opinion in six Arab countries conducted by Shilbey Telhami and Zogby International.  Telhami presented his findings at an event hosted by Martin Indyk at Brookings, along with me and Jim Zogby (who presented some additional findings of his own surveys).  The main findings:  Iraq matters;  Obama is personally popular but deep skepticism remains about U.S. policy; Iran is losing ground but still not seen as much of a threat; and Palestinians should form a national unity government. 

The key findings:

  • Iraq was the single most important issue influencing Arab attitudes towards the Obama administration.  Asked what issue would be most central to their assessment of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, 42% said Iraq, 26% said the Arab-Israeli conflict, and 16% said "attitudes towards Arab/Muslim world" (i.e. showing respect).  Asked what two issues would improve views of the U.S. the most, 51% named "withdrawal from Iraq", while 41% said "Israel-Palestine peace agreement."  Oddly, however, 50% said "withdrawal from Arabian peninsula" — make of that what you will.  Only 6% say that Iraqis are better off after the war (up from 3% last year), and only 21% think that civil war will expand rapidly after the U.S. withdraws. It’s interesting to compare that with the findings of the recent ABC News survey of Iraqi public opinion, where 35% support current timetable for U.S. withdrawal, 46% want U.S. to leave sooner, and only 16% want U.S. to stay longer.  
  • Obama is personally inspiring some hope, but deep skepticism remains about U.S. foreign policy.  Positive views of the U.S. increased from 15% to 18% (i.e. no real difference), but at least "very unfavorable" dropped from 64% to 46%.   Only 3% express "a lot of confidence" in the U.S., and 66% none.  But at the same time 45% expressed positive views of Barack Obama— and 60% expressed positive views if the Egyptian sample is excluded — and only 24% expressed negative views (15% excluding Egypt). That’s a pretty stunning gap between views of the President and views of the U.S. as a whole — and a strong boost for the case for Presidential-led public diplomacy.  Only 14% said that they were discouraged by the first few weeks of the Obama administration, and 51% said they were hopeful.  I think that these hopes offer a window of opportunity, which we’ve been living through, but that it will come crashing down if the administration fails its first — inevitable — test over Israeli settlements or Jerusalem or whatever. 
  • Iran has lost ground with Arab public opinion but is not seen as much of a threat.  The drop is seen especially in Egypt and Morocco — offering evidence that regime-led media campaigns can have a real impact  Where last year 46% said that Iran was conducting nuclear research for peaceful purposes, this year 58% said it was trying to develop nuclear weapons.  In 2008, 67% said that Iran had the right to a nuclear program, but only 53% said the same this year.  And in 2008, 44% said that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would be positive for the region and 12% said negative;  this year, 29% said positive and 18% said negative ("it would not matter" is the big winner, jumping to 46%).  On the other hand, asked to name which two countries posed the biggest threat, 77% named the U.S. and 88% named Israel, while only 13% named Iran — for comparison’s sake, 9% named China.
  • Arabs prefer Hamas to Fatah, but want to see a Palestinian national unity government. 25% blame Mahmoud Abbas for conditions in Gaza (39% outside of Egypt) and 20% blame Hamas.  12% sympathize with Fatah and 22% with Hamas — but without Egypt that goes to 14% for Fatah and 33% for Hamas.  A whopping 74% would like to see a Palestinian national unity government, with a slight preference for a Hamas government over a Fatah government should it come to that. There was also a sharp drop in the percentage placing the Palestinian issue as their most important priority — from 56% last year to 38% this year — which perhaps reflects Arab frustration over the interminable intra-Palestinian divisions. 
  • The Syrian Embassy is likely tickled pink that Bashar al-Asad was the highest rated Arab leader in the question "which two world leaders outside your own country do you admire most."  Asad scored 18% — well below Hugo Chavez, at 36%, but ahead of Osama bin Laden, Hassan Nasrallah, Hosni Mubarak and Mahmoud Ahmedenejad.  Barack Obama didn’t place (George Bush still did quite well in the "worst world leaders" category, though). 

In my brief comments, I noted that we’re still a long way from having the kind of data necessary for Nate Silver-style 538.com analysis of these surveys, but there is more and more data out there to work with. Telhami, Steve Kull’s Project on International Policy Attitudes, Pew, Gallup, and others are doing great work.  Surveys are still blunt instruments, but they do tell us something important — better than the taxi drivers, local informants, and personal projection which used to be so useful to those who wanted to pontificate about Arab opinion. I still prefer to triangulate, reading these surveys against media discourse and other sources, but the data is getting better.  It still needs to be read within a theory of politics, though, of how public opinion matters and when — and there we have a long way to go.  But, as I argued last week, the declining relevance of al-Qaeda and the rising importance of a mass-based, political "resistance" discourse makes such public opinion surveys ever more relevant and important.