One of the important byproducts of the ongoing Arab uprisings, regime changes and national reconfigurations is the increased ability of many people around the world to view Arabs in their full, dynamic human complexity and nuance, rather than the one-dimensional, static, essentialist caricatures of Arabs and Muslims that have long dominated many Western views of our region and its people.Last week I mentioned a region-wide poll of the Arab world by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies that offered timely evidence of the multilayered views of key public policy issues among Arab citizens across the entire region. Today I would like to take this same analysis down to the country level, in this case Egypt, based on the findings of another important poll that has just been released by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland.
The main results of the poll of rural and urban centers in Egypt, conducted in early May, were released two days ago in a short paper titled “What Do Egyptians Want? Key Findings from the Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland.” The findings are a useful addition to the demystification and rehumanization of Arabs and Arab public opinion in the eyes of those around the world who care to make the effort of seeing the Middle East as it really is, and not as anti-Arab or Islamophobic zealots would like to paint us.
Among the intriguing results of Telhami’s analysis are that Egyptian voters seem to differentiate between parliamentary and presidential elections, and apply different criteria in choosing for whom to vote.
The majority of respondents (71 percent) thought that the Muslim Brotherhood made a mistake when it reversed its initial pledge and decided to field its own presidential candidate. Those who voted in the parliamentary elections listed their most important reasons for their votes as political party (24 percent), the candidate’s record and experience (21 percent), and the candidate’s position on the economy (19 percent).
However, for the presidential vote this week, the most important factor among the respondents was personal trust in the candidate (31 percent) followed by the economy (22 percent), and record and experience (19 percent). Only 9 percent ranked the role of religion in politics as the most important factor in the parliamentary elections, and just 8 percent in their presidential preferences.
Telhami found that “less than 10 percent of respondents said that the role of religion in politics is the most important factor in their voting in both the parliamentary and presidential elections.” However, two-thirds of respondents (66 percent) said they supported making Shariah, or Islamic law, the basis of Egyptian law. However, in another twist showing the perils of assessing entire populations on the basis of single issues like this one, he found that just 17 percent of respondents preferred applying Shariah literally, including through the penal code, while 83 percent preferred to apply the spirit of Islamic law but with adaptations that bring it in line with modern times.
To make things even more complicated when trying to assess how Egyptians view the role of religion in public life, the poll asked people to rank other countries as models in envisioning the role that Islam should play in the Egyptian political system. Given the choice of six countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Tunisia, Malaysia, Morocco) that they felt may be closest to their aspirations, a majority chose Turkey (54 percent), followed by Saudi Arabia (32 percent). This represented two very different worldviews, to say the least.
This complexity was also reflected in the international leaders that respondents said they respected. Sixty-three percent named Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and 5 percent each identified President Barack Obama and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. When respondents were then asked whom they would like their next president to resemble, 35 percent mentioned Anwar Sadat, 26 percent Gamal Abdel Nasser, and 15 percent Erdogan.
Attitudes toward the United States and the Arab-Israeli conflict still reflected strong sentiments among Egyptians, with 85 percent saying that they had an unfavorable view of the United States. Sixty-six percent and 46 percent respectively said that the two steps by Washington that would most improve their views of the U.S. were brokering Arab-Israeli peace and establishing a Palestinian state; and stopping economic and military aid to Israel – followed by withdrawing American forces from the Arabian Peninsula (44 percent). Promoting democracy in the Middle East and increasing economic assistance to the region ranked relatively low, below 20 percent.
Egyptians were evenly split in their attitudes to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel (46 percent) or cancelling it (44 percent), with another 10 percent preferring to amend the treaty. A whopping 97 percent included Israel and 80 percent included the United States among the two countries that posed the biggest threat to Egypt. Only 20 percent mentioned Iran in that category (an increase from 8 percent in 2009 and 15 percent in October 2011).
These insights into Egyptian public opinion probably partly reflect new sentiments that are being expressed more freely in the wake of the old autocratic regime. They also partly reflect a long-existing pluralism in Egyptian society and nuances in views on politics, religion and leadership that had often been ignored by those who preferred to paint Arabs as one-dimensional, mostly unthinking, religious and nationalist zealots. This is clearly not the case.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.