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Opinion Briefing: Egyptians on the Arab Spring

Opinion Briefing: Egyptians on the Arab Spring

by Mohamed Younis and Ahmed Younis

This article is part of a series of U.S. Foreign Policy Opinion Briefings aimed at helping to inform U.S. leaders on pressing foreign policy issues.

Quick Summary: Egyptians' opinions about various aspects of the Arab Spring shed light on how U.S. policymakers can take relations with the most populous nation in the Arab world forward. While most Egyptians (79%) supported protests to overthrow former President Hosni Mubarak, a noticeably smaller majority (56%) say they support current calls to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Nearly half (46%) of Egyptians opposed NATO's intervention in Libya, while 18% supported it and 36% did not have an opinion.

Issue at Hand: The pace of change has varied dramatically from country to country since the Arab Spring began a year ago. In this increasingly tense political environment, Egyptian opinions on events in other Arab Spring countries are not uniform or easy to explain. Egyptians do not seem to blindly support calls for transition or approaches to achieving change in fellow Arab League countries.

In a post-Mubarak Egypt, public opinion from Cairo to Qena is now more relevant to U.S. policymakers than ever. As one of the United States' major allies in the region, the internal challenges with Egypt's transition and the country's support of other movements throughout the Arab world are crucial elements of the regional nature of the Arab Spring. The latest tensions surrounding the trial of several American and Egyptian civil society employees and activists are making it difficult for leaders in Cairo and Washington to cooperate.

The Obama Administration's Stance: Pro-democracy forces in the Arab world sometimes criticize the Obama administration for not taking a consistent position on all calls for change in the region. However, the administration maintains that it supports calls for dignity and democracy throughout the region and determines how the U.S. could most effectively support transitions to democracy on a country-by-country basis. Influential analysts in the region and in human rights organizations often cite the U.S. approach to Bahrain as an example of disparities in U.S. policy. Many see allowing an Arab Gulf state to disregard the people's calls for change as an example of Washington only supporting these movements when they align with U.S. energy and national security interests.

With regard to Egypt's own progress toward democracy during the Arab Spring, U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said he was "eager to see a competition of ideas play out," but he described the current atmosphere as "somewhat stymied." He also suggested that, unlike Libya, there is no singular or unified Syrian opposition movement that the U.S. could support militarily, if it desired to do so.

Egyptians' Views on the Arab Spring: Pro-government supporters in several Arab countries have charged that the recent protests and uprisings stem from foreign influences. The government of Bahrain, for example, has consistently and openly accused neighboring Iran of instigating the unrest among the country's Shiite majority. Yet Egyptians would likely disagree with this assessment. When asked whether recent protests and revolts in the Arab world were mostly the result of the people's true desire for change or foreign influence, a majority of Egyptians (63%) said it was mostly people's true desire for change. Thirteen percent of Egyptians ascribed recent protests to the result of foreign influence, while another 13% attributed the causes to both.

Protests desire for true change?

Yet Egyptians' recognition of the Arab Spring's indigenous nature does not mean there is consensus about calls for change across the region. Seventy-nine percent of Egyptians supported the protests that ousted Mubarak. While a majority of Egyptians (56%) said they support protests across Syria demanding Assad's resignation, about one-third (31%) said they "don't know," suggesting a considerable level of uncertainty. More than 1 in 10 Egyptians (12%) said they do not support Syrian protesters.

Support Syria's president?

Egyptians' uncertainty may be more attributable to fears about the regional consequences of a vacuum of power in Damascus than staunch support for the Assad regime. Egypt recently recalled its ambassador to Syria stating it was "unsatisfied with the situation" in the country. The Egyptian foreign ministry also asserted its support for the Arab peace initiative.

Additionally, Egyptians lack consensus on NATO's military intervention in neighboring Libya. In December 2011, a minority of Egyptians (18%) said they favor NATO intervention, while a plurality (46%) oppose such action. Again, a considerable percentage of Egyptians (36%) did not express an opinion. This sentiment of opposition is likely an expression of skepticism of NATO's motivations for supporting Libya revolutionaries than support among Egyptians for the Gadhafi regime.

Oppose NATO in Libya

Egyptian Views on U.S. Role in Supporting Democracy Regionally: Yet beyond NATO airstrikes in Libya, many Egyptians are skeptical about Washington's support for democracy in the region. When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that the U.S. is serious about encouraging the establishment of democratic systems of government in the region, nearly three in four Egyptians (73%) disagree, while a minority (12%) agrees. It is important to note that this sentiment has remained relatively consistent since 2008 when 75% of Egyptians did not see the U.S. as supporting democracy.

U.S. serious about encouraging democratic systems?

Policy Implications: Egyptians' views on the Arab Spring uprisings as indigenous movements for change are consistent with the Obama administration's stance on treating each Arab Spring country differently. The major challenge for the administration is engaging a new Egypt that, although in flux, has not changed its fundamental skepticism with regard to U.S. and other foreign influences and their motivations for engaging the region. The recent diplomatic standoff between Washington and Cairo regarding the trial of several U.S. citizens and their involvement in the electoral process in the country only feeds into this skepticism. With high stakes on both sides of an important relationship for Egypt, how this standoff continues could be central to the relationship of Egypt with potential donor countries. Countries will be weary of domestic political forces politicizing their aid organizations and nongovernmental organizations spending the money of national donors. Perceptions of a cooperative environment for development and assistance projects and their implementation are central to attracting more support for Egypt's faltering economy and political transition.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with 1,077 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted Dec. 16-23, 2011, in Egypt. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3.4 percentage points. Earlier surveys are based on face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, in Egypt. For results based on the total sample of national adults in these surveys, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error ranges from ±3.1 to ±3.5 percentage points. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

For complete methodology and specific survey dates, please review Gallup's Country Data Set details.

Learn more about how the Gallup World Poll works.

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