US and Egypt: a Relationship on the Rocks

The US-Egypt relationship is on the rocks. If it is to be salvaged, both sides will need to change course and pay attention to the concerns of their respective publics, both of whom now hold negative views of each other.

In the year that has passed since massive and sustained demonstrations forced Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak out of office, Egypt remains quite unsettled with many Egyptians and Americans uncertain about that country’s future.

In a poll of Egyptian opinion conducted by Zogby Research Services (ZRS) in late September of 2011, Egyptians were clear about the fact that their political priorities had not changed since the upheavals of January and February 2011. When we had last polled in Egypt, in late 2009, Egyptians said their top concerns, in order, were: improving healthcare, expanding employment, increasing educational opportunities, and ending corruption and nepotism. Far down the list were expanding democracy and political reform.

Two years later, the rank order of this list of political concerns hasn’t much changed. Employment, education, healthcare and ending corruption still form the top tier, with democracy-related concerns ranking lower. Amidst the continuing turmoil that is rocking the country and the standoff between demonstrators, the newly elected parliament and the military authority, what most Egyptians are saying is that they want a government free of corruption that can create jobs and provide for their basic needs. This has not changed and nor has it happened.

Nevertheless, most Egyptians remain hopeful that change will be forthcoming. Two recent polls by ZRS establish that majorities are optimistic and waiting. Eight in 10 express the hope that their lives will improve in the next five years, and more than one-half reserve their criticism, saying “it is too early” to judge the success or failure of the process underway.

What haven’t changed are Egyptian views of the US. In mid- summer 2011, only five per cent held a favourable view of the US, pointing to American bias towards Israel and meddling in Arab affairs as the main reasons for their negative views, with 89 per cent saying that US policies do not “contribute to peace and stability in the Arab world”.

For the first time in our two decades of polling US attitudes towards the Arab world, we find that Americans now hold a net negative view of Egypt. In the past, Egypt always fared quite well in US opinion. Since the 1990s, Egypt’s favourable ratings have been between the mid-50 per cent to mid- 60 per cent range, while the country’s unfavourable ratings were, on average, around 20 per cent. In the last year of Mubarak’s rule, positive US opinions towards Egypt declined, slipping into the high 40 per cent range. But with positive US media coverage of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, favourable ratings shot up, increasing by 20 points. That was one year ago.

A more recent survey of American opinion, conducted in January of 2012, by JZ Analytic for New York University Abu Dhabi, shows that the continued turmoil in Egypt, the behaviour of the military authority (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — SCAF), and questions about the Muslim Brotherhood’s new leadership role have dramatically altered US perceptions of Egypt. Now only 32 per cent of Americans have a favourable attitude towards Egypt, with 34 per cent holding a negative view (and 33 per cent saying they are “not sure”).

The poll also shows that some Americans are uneasy with political developments in Egypt. When asked specifically how they felt about the Muslim Brotherhood winning control in the last election, only four per cent said that this was a “positive development for Egypt”. Just 19 per cent agreed that “this was the outcome of a democratic election and we must accept the results,” while 26 per cent said that in their view this represented a “setback for Egypt” (a view held by 42 per cent of Republicans). A rather substantial 39 per cent were “not sure”.

These numbers are important. The emphasis given by Egyptians to the need for material improvement in their lives, and the (maybe unrealistically) high level of optimism expressed by Egyptians establish markers that neither the military government nor the new parliament can afford to ignore. There is also a cautionary note here that Egypt’s young revolutionaries should be aware of. The public may still support the “revolution” that brought down the old regime, but what they want now are jobs and real improvement in the quality of their lives. As valid as the young revolutionaries’ critique of the military and security services may be, and as important as their demands are, they must take care not to lose public support or allow SCAF to drive a wedge between them and the broader public.

Egypt’s leaders, both new and old, also need to be attentive to the dramatic drop in US public support. While in the past, Egypt could count on high favourable ratings from Americans; these positive ratings were mostly soft and derivative. Americans didn’t really know Egypt (what they did know were pyramids and the Sphinx), and US politicians knew that Egypt could be counted on to support American policy — hence, they spoke well of Egypt and its leader. Today, this has changed and the polls demonstrate the impact of this change. If Egypt’s military and government want to risk a confrontation with Washington, they may find that they have diminished American public support and fewer allies than before.

America, too, should take note of these polls. Wanting democracy for Egypt may be noble, but US standing in Egypt and the region, as a whole, is too low for American leaders to be using the bully pulpit. What Egyptians most want to see from the US is a change in America’s regional policy and help in building their country’s capacity to provide for the people’s basic needs.

James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.

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