Egyptians As They Really Are

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, normal, 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.

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, normal, 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 multi-layered 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 Dr. 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 this week in a short paper entitled “What Do Egyptians Want? Key Findings from the Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland.” The findings are a useful addition to the de-mystification and re-humanization of Arabs and Arab public opinion in the eyes of those around the world who care to make the effort to see this region as it really is, and not as anti-Arab or Islamophobic zealots would like to paint us.

Among the intriguing results of Dr Telhami’s analysis are that Egyptian voters seem to differentiate between parliamentary and presidential elections, and apply different criteria in choosing whom to vote for. The majority of respondents (71%) 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%), the candidate’s record and experience (21%), and the candidate’s position on the economy (19%) — but for the presidential vote this week the most important factor is personal trust in the candidate (31%) followed by the economy (22%), and record and experience (19%). Only 9% ranked the role of religion in politics as the most important factor in the parliamentary elections, and just 8% in their presidential preferences.

Telhami found that “less than ten 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%) said they support making Shari’a as the basis of Egyptian law — but in another twist that shows the perils of assessing entire populations on the basis of single issues like this, he found that just 17% of respondents prefer applying Shari’a literally, including the penal code, while 83% prefer 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 the models of other countries when they envision the role Islam should play in the Egyptian political system; given the choice of six countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Tunisia, Malaysia, Morocco) that they feel may be closest to their aspirations, a majority chose Turkey (54%), followed by Saudi Arabia (32%) — two very different worldviews, to say the least.

This is also reflected in the international leaders they respect, with 63 % of Egyptians naming Prime Minister Recep Teyyib Erdogan of Turkey, and five percent each identifying President Barack Obama and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. When respondents were then asked whom they would like their next president to resemble, 35% mentioned Anwar Sadat, 26% Gamal Abdel Nasser, and 15% Erdogan.

Attitudes toward the United States and the Arab-Israeli conflict still reflect strong sentiments among Egyptians, with 85% saying they have an unfavorable view of the United States; 66% and 46% respectively say the two steps by the United States 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%). Promoting democracy in the Middle East and increasing economic assistance to the region ranked relatively low, below 20%.

Egyptians were evenly split in their attitudes to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel (46%), cancelling it (44%), with another 10% preferring to amend the treaty.

A whopping 97% included Israel and 80% included the United States among the two countries that posed the biggest threat to them, and just 20% mentioned Iran (an increase from 8% in 2009 and 15% 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, and partly a long existing pluralism in 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, which is clearly not the case.


Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of  The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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