American Attitudes Toward Egypt Have Soured

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
American public opinion has soured on Egypt, with one-half of all American voters now holding an unfavorable view of that country and its leadership. This was not always the case

My brother John Zogby and I have been measuring American attitudes toward the Arab World for two decades. For much of that time, Egypt had the highest ratings of any country in the region. In fact, in most years from 1993 until 2010 around 60% of Americans rated Egypt positively. However, in our most recent poll, conducted in March of 2013, only 36% of Americans report having a favorable rating of Egypt, while 48% have an unfavorable view.

This dramatic shift in U.S. opinion is a function of two main factors: concern about the role being played by the Muslim Brotherhood and the American public's general lack of awareness about Egypt's contemporary history.

While modern Egypt has been known in the Arab World for its cinema, its comedy and music, and its political and intellectual leadership, the image of the country was never established in the United States. As a result, positive attitudes were "soft" and/or derivative of other factors. Back when Egypt's ratings were high, in response to the open-ended question "what is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear Egypt?” the overwhelming majority of answers recalled the "pyramids", "the Sphinx", and the other "glories of ancient Egypt". There were also respondents who mentioned the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the Camp David Accords.

In the early months of the Arab Spring the images of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators called to mind for many Americans their own civil rights movement or Eastern Europe's fall of the "Iron Curtain". After an initial drop in ratings in early 2011, by mid-2011 Egypt's favorable ratings were back up to 60%. That support has since evaporated. But in the March 2013 poll when we asked for respondent's "first thought when they hear Egypt", "pyramids" was still the most frequently mentioned term, now followed closely by "trouble", "unrest" and the "Muslim Brotherhood".

In January of 2012, we asked Americans whether or not they were hopeful that the Arab Spring would bring about positive change. By more than two to one they answered in the affirmative. But in the tumultuous year and a half that has followed, Americans have lost that hope. Today, the number of American voters who say they are disappointed with "how the Arab Spring has played out in Egypt" is three times greater than those who say they are still hopeful that positive change will come.

As much as "soft" attitudes are to blame, concern with the Muslim Brotherhood is also a factor in the new negative opinion toward Egypt. Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is only viewed favorably by 14% of Americans, while over one half have an unfavorable view of Morsi. And by almost three to one Americans rate former President Hosni Mubarak as having been more of a friend and ally of the U.S. than Morsi, the current president. 

It is important to note that it is not anti-Muslim animus that drives these numbers, since strong negative views of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi exist even among those Americans who hold a favorable view of Muslims. 

There are consequences that result from this change in attitudes. Many Americans now question whether or not the U.S. government can work with a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt. They also question whether the U.S. should provide military and civilian aid to Egypt. A majority of Americans also say they worry about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over in other countries, and say that they support actions by other Arab governments to "limit the activity of Muslim Brotherhood branches operating in their countries". 

Another by-product of this negative turn and the general disappointment with the trajectory of the "Arab Spring" has been the public's embrace of an interesting combination of principles they feel should guide American foreign policy. 

For example, when asked whether the U.S. "should support governments, whether they are elected or not, if they work closely with us to promote regional stability and protect our interests" or whether we "should only support democratically elected governments, even if those governments might pursue policies that are hostile to our interests", by a wide margin of 72% to 17% American voters chose the first approach.

And when asked to choose between providing support "for any government that is democratically elected, even if it is pursuing policies that compromise the rights of minorities in their countries" or "as a condition for U.S. support, we should require that any government, whether it has been elected or not, protect the rights of all their citizens", by an 85% to 10% margin voters chose the second approach. 

Two years ago, I compared Egypt to Broadway, noting that it didn't matter so much how events played out on other stages across the Arab World because the world would judge the Arab Spring by how it played out in Egypt. We are now two and one-half years into the Arab Spring and the "blush is off the rose". American's are disappointed, attitudes toward Egypt have soured, and the public has adopted a less romantic, more "realist" approach to our relations across the Arab World. 

 

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