Behind the Numbers

The Cairo Consensus

Will Egyptian voters cast their ballot against the United States and Israel?


The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

A burgeoning democracy movement has energized Egypt, culminating in unprecedented elections that started on Wednesday, May 23. But a poll released this month shows Egyptians are grappling with dual commitments to Islam and basic democratic liberties as the country shifts from decades of autocratic rule. For one, a majority wants Egypt’s laws to strictly follow the Quran, and the free and fair election that’s hoped for may actually bring bad tidings for Egypt’s one-time partners: The United States continues to be widely unpopular and hostility toward Israel is on the rise.

Egyptians united to oust President Hosni Mubarak amid last year’s Arab Spring uprisings. Part and parcel to that antipathy was disdain for the United States, a longtime Mubarak ally. Nearly eight in 10 Egyptians had an unfavorable view of the United States, according to a 2011 poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project conducted after the overthrow. About half said their views were “very unfavorable.”

Little has changed since then, and a new Pew poll finds scant appreciation for U.S. aid efforts. Egypt has received an average of $2 billion a year from the United States — largely to their military — making it the second largest recipient after Israel. But fully six in 10 believe U.S. military and economic aid is having a mostly negative effect on the country.

Even the shimmer of Obama’s presidency has worn off on many Egyptians. After a scant 11 percent of Egyptians expressed confidence in George W. Bush in 2008, 42 percent gave positive marks to Obama in advance of his landmark 2009 speech in Cairo — billed as a “new beginning.” The gloss has clearly warn off. In the latest Pew survey, nearly seven in 10 Egyptians now express little confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs.

The widespread rejection of U.S. aid may be surprising given the Egyptians’ desire for an economic turnaround. More than seven in 10 say Egypt’s economy is in bad shape, a slightly higher percentage than a year ago. But hopes for the future are high, with half of Egyptians thinking the economy will improve over the next year. Just one in five thinks it will get worse. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has pledged more than $2.7 billion in aid to Cairo.

Public opinion forebodes a more perilous predicament for Israel. By two to one, Egyptians want to nullify the nation’s peace treaty with that country, a number that’s jumped sharply among those under age 30 and those with college educations. That doesn’t necessarily indicate a desire to take up arms, but scuttling the treaty would raise already high tensions in the region.

Domestically, Egyptians will have to negotiate a balance between desire for individual liberties and a Islamic-centered government. Fully two-thirds of Egyptians in the new Pew survey say democracy is the best form of government, and wide majorities hailed the importance of a fair judiciary, uncensored media, law and order, freedom of speech, and honest elections.

These priorities are not fundamentally incompatible with all Islamic societies — even with Islamic governments. But some Egyptian views hint at support for a more hard line theocratic rule. Six in 10 say they want laws to strictly follow the Quran, and just as many say Saudi Arabia is a better model than Turkey for the role of religion in public life, far from an endorsement of secular democracy.

Worryingly, protecting the rights of women and religious minorities is not a key priority for Egyptians right now. Just 41 percent said it was “very important” that women have the same rights as men, and only 38 percent said it was very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities can practice their religion freely.

Altogether, democracy may prove far less predictable than dictatorship in Egypt, bringing big consequences for other democracies, too.

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