Tuesday, May 15, 2012

14-May-12: Our Egyptian neighbours: Optimistic, pro-democracy, strongly Islamic, and (of course) increasingly negative to peaceful relations with you-know-which-neighbour

Tahrir Square, April 27, 2012: Veiled Egyptian woman
protestor. The original caption reads: "Radical Islamists
in Egypt dream of turning the most populous
Arab country into a religious state." [Image Source]

The Pew Global Attitudes Project released its 2012 poll results on Egypt some days ago.

Trying to find something encouraging in what it tells us about the Egyptians is a challenge. We're not statisticians, and still less experts on what makes Egypt tick. But the results, based on about 1,000 face-to-face interviews, point to some major internal contradictions. These seem to reflect a desire to have more democracy and Western-style economic achievements in their lives on the one hand, while at the same time yearning for a more Islam-dominated society on the other.

First, they know their economy is in dangerously bad shape. A mere 29% of Egyptians think their country's economic situation is good (it stood at 34% in 2011). But they're super optimistic; half of all Egyptians expect it to improve in the next 12 months.

How realistic is that? A survey in the Economist three months ago suggests not very:
In Egypt the public sector accounts for 40% of value-added outside agriculture—an unusually large share for a middle-income country. Such private firms as do exist tend to be large and closely connected to the state... Arab companies are globally uncompetitive. The Middle East accounts for less than 1% of world non-fuel exports, compared with 4% from Latin America (a region with a comparable population). Turkey exports five times as much as Egypt, which has a population of similar size.
EconomyWatch forecasts reduced tourism receipts, supply chain disruptions and other knock-on effects this year following the recent 'Arab Spring' uprising. Oxford Economics, interpreting the outcome in practical terms, says the negative direction of Egypt's economy means the country faces credit rating downgrades during 2012. Significant under-performance on Egypt's scale tends not to fix it itself quickly... and that's true even when the nation's frame of mind is so strikingly optimistic.

An astounding 83% say Egypt's religious leaders have a very good or somewhat good influence on the country. And about the military, who in effect run the country today via the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) fronted by Mohamed Tantawi, 75% feel it has a good influence. That's mainly the men. Among Egypt's women, 58% said the military’s influence was very good a year ago, but today it's down to 38%. That's half of the men-plus-women number.

The media - television, radio, newspapers, magazines - get amazingly high marks from all sectors of Egyptian society. Overall, 70% have a positive assessment. Compare this with the United States where a different Pew survey on US public attitudes to the media published in September 2011 found that 66% say news stories often are inaccurate; 77% think that news organizations tend to favor one side; and 80% say news organizations are often influenced by powerful people and organizations.

But not in Egypt, according to what the Egyptian public believes.

The Egyptian public also likes democracy - a lot. At least so they say. Two-thirds of all Egyptians believe democracy is preferable to any other form of government. But (and here we start to run into some puzzling bits) 60% want their laws to strictly follow the Koran. Note however that support for Koran-based law dropped by 12 percentage points among educated Egyptians (secondary school or college education) in the past year, while it's up by 10 percentage points in the same period among their uneducated fellow citizens.

This ambivalence about democracy-versus-Islam is reflected in one of the survey's key findings. Asked whether Saudi Arabia or Turkey serves as the better model for the role of religion in government, 61% of Egyptians say Saudi Arabia. A mere 17% choose Turkey. And among Egyptians who see a positive role for Islam in their country's politics, 71% choose the Saudi Arabia model.

So much for the 'good' news.

The Pew people left the parts about Egyptian opinion on the US and Israel to the final chapter of their report, perhaps because it makes for such challenging reading. Here's a summary:
  • Overall Egyptian feelings about the U.S. and about President Barack H. Obama are overwhelmingly unfavorable
  • His standing in Egyptian eyes has dropped steadily since 2009. Back then, 42% expressed confidence; 47% said not much or none at all. Now, in the highly influential 18-29 year-old cohort, only 24% have confidence in the US president, a full twenty points lower than a year ago.   
  • Financial aid from the US, courtesy of American taxpayers, is viewed with utter disdain. 60% today see it as having a detrimental impact. For the record, US military aid to Egypt as of March 2012 [New York Times: "Once Imperiled, U.S. Aid to Egypt Is Restored"] stood at $1.2 Billion per year. Non-military aid to Egypt added a further quarter-billion dollars to that in 2010.
  • Yet a majority would like Egypt's relations with the U.S. to stay about as close as they are today. 38% would like to see Egypt/US relations get "less close".
  • Overall, 79% hold unfavorable attitudes toward the U.S. How many hold a favourable view? Just 19%.
  • On the Israel question, which is the last item in the lengthy report, the language of the Pew report is precise and devastating: "Most Egyptians favor overturning the 1979 peace treaty in which Egypt became the first Arab country to formally recognize Israel. Roughly six-in-ten (61%) want to annul the treaty, up slightly from last year (54%). Just under a third (32%) want to maintain it. Opposition to the treaty has grown significantly over the last year among young people and the highly educated. Support for annulling the treaty has increased by 14 points among 18-29 year-olds and by 18 points among the college-educated."
Headed for presidential elections
Egypt is about to elect a president. A Reuters report today ["Egypt vote won't push the generals aside"] describes the political haggling among Egypt's Islamists, liberals, military generals, and assorted other politicians:
At stake in the Defense Ministry meeting... was who would write a new constitution and what powers would Mubarak's successor have. No clarity has emerged. When voting starts on May 23 and 24 in a presidential race that broadly pits Islamists against men who at one time or another served under Mubarak, Egyptians still won't know the next head of state's permanent job description.
Whatever his job entails, it's going to impact Israel, and it's not hard to detect the edginess on the Israeli side of the border, including recently announced troop reinforcements. Pre-election speeches by the leading Egyptian presidential candidates have struck a notably hostile tone regarding Israel, and the Pew results suggest the reason why. Whatever they may feel, the candidates know it makes electoral sense to beat up on Israel.

So we see (via this Egyptian media report) Abdul Moniem Abul Fotouh, the leading Islamist candidate, calling Israel a “racist state” and asserting that the 1979 peace treaty is “a national security threat” that should be revised. Amr Moussa, his opponent and former Arab League chief who served as foreign minister in the Mubarak regime, also wants the treaty with Israel changed but expresses it a touch more diplomatically: "Most of our people consider it an enemy, but the responsibility of the president is to deal with such things responsibly and not run after hot-headed slogans."

Ah, yes: responsible leadership. We can hardly wait.

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