The reactions of the Arab public to the Cairo speech were tempered and nuanced.
Cairo and counting
We are now approaching the first anniversary of President Barack Obama's June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, which offered Arabs and Muslims around the world a new "engagement" with the United States. A year later, how do Arab publics see the results of that effort--and how much do their views about it really matter?
One thing is very clear: compared to former President George W. Bush, Obama's personal popularity among most Arabs started out much higher and so far has generally stayed that way. The latest available survey data on this are from Pechter Middle East Polls, a young firm based in Princeton, New Jersey that partners with the most credible established local pollsters in each country. The results do vary considerably across the countries polled: Obama's approval ratings today range from a high of 45 percent in Lebanon to a low of 30 percent in Iraq and Jordan.
More specifically, some of these recent polls asked about particular US policies, with intriguing results. Remarkably, asked for "the most positive thing the US could do" in the region, economic support tied statistically with Arab-Israel issues among Egyptians (36 percent each) and Saudis (30 and 27 percent). In Jordan, US policies on Iraq, Guantanamo, democracy promotion and overall relations with Muslims received ratings of at least "somewhat credible" from around 30 percent in April 2010--little changed from those ratings in the immediate aftermath of Obama's speech in Cairo the previous spring. But the credibility of "US policy toward Arab-Israel peace" nearly doubled among Jordanians over the past year: from 21 percent right after the Cairo speech to 39 percent today.
Among West Bank/Gaza Palestinians, somewhat fewer (30 percent) say that the US seeks the creation of "an independent and viable Palestinian state," according to a US-government sponsored survey taken by a Palestinian pollster in mid-March. And a mere 20 percent are even "somewhat satisfied" with Washington's "current involvement in the Arab-Israel peace process"--though that figure is up modestly from the corresponding numbers from the end of Bush's tenure (6 percent) or the end of Obama's first year in office (10 percent).
On Iran, another key issue for US policy in the region today, Arab attitudes are mixed. Pechter polls from November 2009 and March-April 2010 show solidly negative popular views both of Iran and of Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq--including among Iraq's Shi'ite majority. The US push for tougher sanctions against Iran's nuclear program garners clear majority support from Saudis (57 percent), but smaller percentages in Egypt (43), Jordan (41) or Lebanon (39). As of late 2009, a third of Saudis were actually willing to say they would support an American military strike against Iran's nuclear program and a quarter of Egyptians said the same.
But how much does any of this matter? Not so much, according to the best available data. For one thing, the entire past decade's worth of survey research proves that Arab attitudes toward other important issues are largely unrelated to their views of the United States. This includes their attitudes toward al-Qaeda, suicide bombing, terrorism in general and even terrorism specifically directed against American civilians. Arab popular sympathy for any of those actions plummeted precipitously in almost every society polled after 2003-04, even as attitudes toward the US, its policies and its president remained heavily negative.
The timing strongly suggests the main reason for this shift. Opinion turned sharply and enduringly against terrorism immediately after a major terrorist bombing inside each country. This sea change in attitudes had everything to do with local incidents and almost nothing to do with the United States.
Related to this is a second, equally striking research finding: the US is just not that much on people's minds in the region. For example, in the November 2009 Pechter polls, Saudis and Egyptians were asked in an open-ended fashion to pinpoint the most important issue facing their country today. Two-thirds of Saudis cited economic problems even in that supposedly "oil rich" country: inflation (21 percent), corruption (18), unemployment (16), and poverty (11). No foreign policy issue made the list at all. The pattern in Egypt was similar. Economic concerns dominated the list: poverty (22 percent), inflation (15), unemployment (12) and corruption (10).
Even the usually tendentious Zogby polls have reported such findings when they posed this question of popular priorities in a similarly neutral way. Based on polls he conducted in six Arab states in 2002 and 2005, for instance, James Zogby concluded that "issues very close to home dominate the rankings, with 'family', 'work' and 'marriage' ranking numbers one, two and three. 'Political issues facing Arab nations', 'leisure time' and 'domestic political issues' remain at the bottom of the list."
Third, even when Arab publics have a poor impression of the US, they still tend to believe it is important for their own governments to have good ties with Washington. In Jordan, for instance, only one-quarter of the public reported a favorable opinion of the US in late 2009--but twice as many (53 percent) said Jordan should maintain good bilateral relations. Similarly, in Lebanon opinions on foreign policy are, as noted, highly polarized by that country's unique sectarian cleavages. Yet a majority (56 percent) of the total Lebanese population says their country should have good relations with the US, including a third who say they feel strongly that way.
Fourth, even if Arab publics did not want their governments to keep close ties with Washington, almost all of those governments would probably do so anyway. These are not, after all, the kind of full-fledged democracies in which public opinion determines foreign policy.
Fifth, finally, and most surprisingly of all: even when Arab attitudes toward the US were overwhelmingly negative, during the Bush years, Arab publics continued to travel to the US, to study in American schools and to buy American brands--in record high numbers by 2008. Moreover, after the first two years of the Iraq war, the number of reported anti-American protests in the entire Arab region dwindled to almost nothing: an average of just two such protests per country each year from 2006 through 2009. These findings are analyzed in exhaustive detail in a study I just completed, appropriately entitled, "Actions, Not Just Attitudes: A New Paradigm for US-Arab Relations." This does not mean that Arabs are hypocritical--just human.- Published 20/5/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
David Pollock is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is a former senior adviser at the State Department and former chief of Near East/South Asia/Africa Research at the USIA.
Palestinians want US role even if they don't like it
Palestinians have no illusions: the United States is no friend; it is Israel's friend. No matter who sits in the White House, the US is perceived by almost two-thirds of the Palestinians as biased in favor of Israel. Yet a majority, more than 60 percent in polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in 2009, favors a more forceful US intervention in Palestinian-Israeli peace-making efforts.
Indeed, if the US were to present ideas or a peace plan along the lines of the Clinton parameters/Geneva initiative and sought to force the two sides, Israel and Palestine, to accept and implement it, almost half of all Palestinians would support such an intervention. The amazing part is that a majority of Palestinians is in fact opposed to the Clinton parameters/Geneva initiative; indeed, last August only 37 percent of the public supported it. Of course, if the US intervention is meant to force both sides to accept and implement the Arab Peace Initiative, an initiative already accepted by a majority of the Palestinians, support for such US intervention would be much higher. What explains this apparent double anomaly?
In part, the explanation lies in the public perception that ending occupation through diplomacy requires external pressure on Israel that only the US, if it wishes, can exert. A majority of Palestinians believes that if the US intervened strongly in the peace process, negotiations would succeed. Of course, most Palestinians believe the US is not, for domestic reasons, inclined to do so. For this reason, Palestinians do not show much confidence in diplomacy. Nonetheless, even those Palestinians who view violence as much more effective than diplomacy in ending occupation recognize that violence alone is not sufficient and that ultimately diplomacy and the support of the international community will be indispensable for ending occupation and delivering independence.
A second possible explanation for Palestinian support for a strong American intervention in the peace process is the fact that Palestinians do not trust the intentions of Israeli leaders; even if agreements are signed, Israelis will not implement them. Only a small fraction of the Palestinian public has any confidence in the peaceful intentions of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and only a few more have confidence in the peaceful intentions of the Israeli public. A US intervention, one that forces Israel to implement signed agreements, is therefore welcomed even by those who flatly reject those same signed agreements.
This explains why the percentage of Palestinians who favor strong US intervention to force Israelis and Palestinians to accept and implement a peace plan based on the Clinton parameters/Geneva initiative is larger than the percentage of Palestinians who are in favor of such a peace plan. Indeed, US imposition of such a plan on both sides seems to convince some 30 percent of those opposed to the parameters and the initiative to support a strong US intervention to impose such a peace plan.
It is interesting to note that a simultaneous poll among the Israeli public found a similar trend in Israel. In a sense, strong US intervention is perceived to be about exercising leverage on Israel and Palestine to force them to make a full commitment to accept and implement a peace plan when, according to the Palestinian and Israeli publics, no such commitment currently exists. Of course for Palestinians, who believe in their side's readiness for peace, strong US intervention is meant to force the other side, the Israelis, to accept compromises that they would otherwise reject.
It is interesting to note that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also recently reversed a previous position he took with regard to more forceful US intervention in the peace process. While negotiating with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert back in 2008, Abbas resisted pressure in November and December for greater US involvement, for example submission of US bridging proposals. In doing so, he seemed to have some confidence that his bilateral talks with Olmert and his colleagues might be more productive than any American intervention. With Netanyahu, things are different; here Abbas seems to exhibit profound distrust regarding the intentions of his Israeli partner. In the absence of an Israeli partner, a more forceful American role seems to be a substitute.
But perhaps more than anything else, Palestinian public support for strong US intervention in the peace process might reflect a desperate search for ways and means to end occupation even if such a search leads Palestinians to unlikely places. If violence and diplomacy have failed, perhaps US intervention would work.
Consistent with their normative belief that the US is biased in favor of Israel, Palestinians view strong US intervention in the peace process as benefiting Israelis more than Palestinians. Indeed, while more than 60 percent believe Israel would benefit more from such an intervention, only 10 percent believe it would benefit Palestinians more. In other words, not only do Palestinians view peace and conflict resolution with Israel in non-zero sum terms, but they are also resigned to the notion that a peace agreement is likely to give them much less than it gives Israel.- Published 20/5/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Khalil Shikaki is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
Why does it matter to Washington?
Mohamed A.B. Yossif
For more than two decades, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been the core element that shaped Arab public opinion vis-a-vis the United States. But the tenure of President George W. Bush and the Barack Obama phenomenon have taught us that new factors shape how millions of Arabs see the US today.
Obama secured very high approval ratings in the Arab region early in his presidency, especially after the speech he gave in Cairo in June 2009. Today, however, recent polls suggest that the majority of Arabs do not believe that Obama is serious about the promises he gave then to improve US policy in the region.
The problem with most of these polls is that they usually give us an unrealistic view of Arab attitudes toward the US since they assume that the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is the only factor that affects Arab public opinion toward the United States. But since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, millions of Arabs have started to judge the US through a more nuanced perspective based on three main pillars.
The first pillar is US relations with Arab regimes. Millions of Arabs realized that Washington's support for authoritarian regimes in the region has been an important contributor to the growing radicalization of the Arab community. They've understood that the absence of democracy equals unemployment and poverty and that Israel's brutal and irresponsible policies in Palestine and Lebanon are not the only cause of their daily problems, the poor standard of education, the low salaries or corrupt governments.
Some scholars disagree that democracy promotion is now one of the most important factors shaping Arab attitudes toward the US. But if we were to ask the 40 percent of Egyptians who live under the poverty line what they need now, they would answer that they need a government that would work to achieve social justice. Hence, what are their reactions when they see American officials praising the Egyptian government's "performance" in economic reform?
In the meantime, Arab civil society, independent media and reformers--which now have a crucial role in forging and influencing the public debate on a number of issues--are advocating day and night for US pressure on Arab regimes to begin political reform. That too has led to a prioritization of democracy promotion on the agenda of Arab citizens when they think about the United States and the West in general.
The second pillar is what the Obama administration calls "the US relationship with the Muslim world", which he talked about in his speech in Cairo last year.
The problem here is that it has remained talk. The US administration has tried to improve America's image among Muslims with rhetoric alone and has exhibited no clear and comprehensive strategy. A year after the Cairo speech, Obama is less popular in some countries, according to a survey conducted by the BBC last April. In Egypt alone, 55 percent said they did not see any progress in US relations with the Muslim world.
The third pillar, the classic one, is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This used to be the main priority in terms of Arab opinion about the US, but it is different today, and divisions between Palestinian factions and the decline and politicization of the resistance movement have muted reactions in the Arab world regarding what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza.
It is worth mentioning that the demonstrations Egypt witnessed during the recent waves of clashes in Jerusalem because of Israeli violation of the Aqsa Mosque were organized by the Muslim Brotherhood in an attempt by the group to flex its muscles and signal to the Egyptian regime that it can mobilize the public if it needs to. The rest of the public, however, did not give the same attention to what is happening in Jerusalem compared to the attention given to the second intifada in 2002.
It should be clear then, that Arab public opinion toward the US is passing through a transitional phase where new and more complex standards are used to judge US polices in the region. Over the last two decades, authoritarian regimes have worked hard to manipulate the US image in the eyes of the Arab public, but with the rise of new media and 100 million youngsters, Arab citizens are trying to build their own image. That, as a result, should be of the utmost concern to Washington as it ponders its next moves in the region.- Published 20/5/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Mohamed A.B. Yossif is a Cairo-based journalist.
Arab attitudes one year after Cairo
James J. Zogby
One year ago, President Barack Obama traveled to Cairo to deliver what was billed as an "Address to the Muslim World". Obama understood that after eight years of neglectful and/or reckless Bush administration policies in the Middle East, it was important to signal a change in direction to the people of that region.
The speech, which focused on shared problems, shared misconceptions and shared goals, elicited a near euphoric response from most officials and editorial writers across the Arab world. The reactions of the Arab public, on the other hand, though positive, were more tempered and nuanced.
From polls we conducted throughout the president's first year-and-a-half in office, we have observed clear evidence of an "Obama bounce" in Arab public opinion. It began with his election and peaked with the Cairo address.
A year ago, when these initial polls were released, I noted that what Obama had accomplished was the restoration of "Brand America". On one level, the impact of eight years of George W. Bush had been erased. Strong majorities still held overall negative views of America and American policies in Palestine, Iraq and the treatment of Muslims and Arabs worldwide. But there were marked improvements in attitudes toward the American people, culture, values and products--with favorable ratings in all these areas back at pre-Bush levels. But while Obama was personally viewed favorably and there was some degree of confidence that the new president would work to make needed policy changes, this was not an opinion shared by a majority of Arabs.
Our polling established that the factors driving this complex but overall positive swing in Arab attitudes were varied. First and foremost among these factors was the very election of Barack Hussein Obama. From pre-election polling in the region, we knew that Arabs had followed the tumultuous US contest and were acutely aware of the profound change represented by the American people's rejection of the policies of the Bush era and historic nature of their choice of an African-American to lead the country.
Arabs were also moved by the new president's repudiation of torture, his decisions to close Guantanamo and leave Iraq, the immediate attention he gave to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the early and dramatic outreach Obama made to the Arab and Muslim peoples--beginning with his al-Arabiya interview and culminating with the Cairo address.
But as our polls made clear, there was also a deep-seated and well-founded wariness that after decades of hopes betrayed and promises broken, "no US president can change American policy."
It was this view that received some validation in the months after Cairo as the White House appeared to pull the plug on whatever expectations of change had taken hold. Disappointment over the US's back-tracking on the call for a "complete settlement freeze" was compounded by Washington's immediate and total rejection of the Goldstone report on crimes committed during the January 2009 Gaza War.
Guantanamo was not closed and then, following a failed attempt to down a US airliner on Christmas Day 2009, the White House announced plans to target all passengers traveling from or through 14 mostly Arab and Muslim countries. This set off a wave of indignation across the Middle East, with editorials in even some pro-American papers questioning whether anything had changed in Washington.
To be fair, from the earliest days of his presidency, Obama had cautioned that change would be slow and uneven. Comparing government to a huge ocean liner, he observed that it could not be turned on a dime. Progress would be slow, mistakes would be made and change could only be measured over time. And to give credit where it's due, the administration has, in some areas, reasserted itself and changed course, most notably in the effort to halt Israeli construction in occupied Jerusalem and in scrapping the 14-country screening plan.
Our most recent polling suggests that an "Obama bounce" is still in evidence. Arabs remain wary about US Middle East policy and skeptical about the administration's ability to be even-handed in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Favorable attitudes toward the president himself are down somewhat, but overall ratings Arabs give to American people, culture, value and products remain high. In this regard, it is fair to say that Arab attitudes one year after Cairo are both cautious and mature. They are neither unrealistically hopeful nor excessively deflated. They are still waiting for needed change and open to recognizing it when it comes.- Published 20/5/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute, senior advisor to Zogby International (which conducts polling across the Arab world) and author of the forthcoming "Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us And Why It Matters".